El Sur (The South) Review
Strictly speaking, El Sur is only half the film director Victor Erice wanted to make. And yet it doesn’t feel compromised or unfinished. Rather, it is a beautifully measured and complete film. As it was released in 1983, we can be pretty sure El Sur will never have a part two, but while that is a shame because it’s one less film from Erice, it doesn’t reflect poorly on this film in the slightest. In fact, it rather adds to the frisson of nostalgia and duality the story embraces.
Told in a reflective fashion, the story is that of Estrella (played at two different ages by Sonsoles Aranguren and Icíar Bollaín) remembering her relationship with her father Agustín (Omero Antonutti). They live in the North of Spain, but her father was raised in the South. He seems unable to reconcile his past; while reluctant to return to his hometown, it nevertheless hosts something he can’t make peace with. We can’t tell if it that is caused by anger or guilt. Perhaps a bit of both.
Agustín is an enigma and the distance from his daughter is emphasised for our benefit. Contrarily, their relationship is close, magical even, at least in her younger years. Estrella represents something just slightly unattainable for her father and so there is poetry in that his past is a similar mystery to her. It captures a universal truth that perhaps many children view their parents lives with wonder, despite mundanity, but Agustín at least is the kind of father to affectionately play up to that awe. Where her mother (Lola Cardona, a reliable constant with far less screentime) teaches her practical things, he is more like a magician. Even for the viewer, it is hard to be sure of what his occupation is; not many can make a living water divining with a pendulum. Estrella comments that people seem fascinated, but to her it was normal. The pendulum itself gains providence for Estrella, emphasising the sentiment of the story. Talisman’s are a regular tool for Erice and the pendulum is more than just a mere thing.
Around the time of her communion, it is clear Estrella absorbs without question anything her father does. As she gets older, Agustín’s habits perhaps appear more eccentric and unreliable. The spell is fading and Estrella needs substance for those habits. Her more mature curiosity starts to see the puzzle, clues from the South and his past that torments him and shuts his family out.
While El Sur is Estrella’s story, the film mischievously teases the father’s own narrative. The girl is an unreliable source anyway, telling as she does the story from her memory. That we see a little more of Agustín’s secrets than she does gives us a slight advantage, but not a lot. Perhaps the motivations would have been explored more in the full version Erice wanted to make. Be it by design or chance, the narrative is perfect the way it is presented now.
Fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar has clearly been inspired by Erice. Both have a consummate grasp of cinema and genre, so much so it informs their work. Indeed, they both demonstrate an understanding of Hollywood that Hollywood itself lacks (though this is common in foreign work that observes the same Western lean towards Romantic Realism; Yasujirō Ozu directed in a similar manner, with focus on family).
Victor Erice's direction is assured and playful; while happy to be a melancholic drama that lacks the obvious urgency of a thriller, the mystery of Agustín’s past nevertheless casts a shadow. So much so, Erice even signposts it when Estrella sees a poster for Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. There’s no grand denouement though, no twist; El Sur is about a family and a metaphor for how the civil war has left people behind. There is little specific reference to the war, yet it inhabits the film regardless.
Outside of history students, that element may be difficult to fully appreciate, but the performances and chemistry between the actors is superb and El Sur is an engrossing place to spend a couple of hours.
José Luis Alcaine’s photography is a thing of wonder. The natural lighting and use of shadows is gorgeous, in particular during transitions of night into day and so evenly balanced, it perfectly services the actors and narrative. The pace is steady and engrossing, weaving a spell rarely achieved. That isn’t a polite way of saying it’s slow! It is precisely the correct length.
Erice’s confidence is no more apparent than in Agustín simply reading a letter in a cafe. We see him reading, we hear a woman’s voice narrating its contents and his face betrays a mess of understated emotions. Meanwhile, a piano is being tuned as if representing the stutter in Agustin’s mind. It is a beautiful moment. That the woman’s voice belongs to an actress who he clearly had a relationship with and yet is only referred to by her stage name, captures in one scene the mystery, the duality, the haunting nostalgia and calculated delivery that throughout the film denies the viewer too much insight, despite the intimacy. Indeed, while Estrella is the focus of the narrative, she cannot appreciate this event. The viewer can and yet Agustin keeps us at arms length, just as he does his daughter.
El Sur makes for an interesting companion piece to Cinema Paradiso, which also used cinema and family to similar effect, albeit with more of a romantic penchant for sentiment. And what is cinema, but nostalgia recorded to delightfully torment us? Victor Erice feels this keenly. We may not know his conclusion to the story, but the ending of El Sur at least brings us a natural closure. What happens next lies in our imagination. The spell will continue to tease us, so all we can do is watch it again to try to unlock the mystery further.
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Victor Erice’s film is full of detail and warm texture; a masterpiece of mise en scene. The transfer retains this warmth and is especially striking during José Luis Alcaine’s more ambitious uses of light. The contrast between light and dark is particularly impressive, with detail to be found in the shadows. The film has a depth and the transfer illuminates all of it.
The soundtrack is the original mono and yet has as much detail and depth as the rest of the film. Speech is clear and centred while environmental sounds are suitably distant and create a perfectly convincing atmosphere. In a film such as this, it is the small moments that register.
Haunted Memory: The Cinema of Victor Erice (13m)
This video essay has been created by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López from Sight and Sound magazine. It’s unconventional, but perfectly captures the intimacy of Erice’s work; “a conspiracy of silence”, it suggests, and explores Erice’s recurring themes of childhood, talismans, cinema and family.
Victor Erice interviewed by Geoff Andrew (83m)
This interview from 2003 is presented effectively as a commentary track. As it is audio only with no subtitles, it is a challenging listen, as we hear Victor in Spanish and then the translation. Still, it’s insightful to hear his own honest assessment of his work.
This wonderful release from the BFI is rounded off by a thorough booklet featuring essays by Geoff Andrew and Mar Diestro-Dópido.