This post comprises the third and final entry in our Ana Torrent film series. Before we begin, I would like to point out that, because the quality of film available to me was relatively poor—bleary, washed out and dim—the stills taken from it are not as good as I would’ve liked. Nevertheless, I took over 120 stills in all and sifted through them to get what I believe were the finest examples from the bunch. Anyway . . .
Although El Nido (The Nest) was a contender for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1981 Academy Awards, the Oscar instead went to Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. El Nido is an odd little film directed by Jaime de Armiñán and is widely considered his best film. It stars Victor Alterio as an aging but spry widower and the then 13-year-old Ana Torrent as the young girl he becomes infatuated with. Torrent won Best Actress for her performance at the 1980 Montreal Film Festival, as well she should have. Though Armiñán lacks the artful flair of Erice or Saura, this was a solidly directed film, and I find it strange that I had never heard of it before, only discovering it when I began to look deeper into the early career of Ana Torrent. So imagine my surprise when I discovered she had starred in Spain’s answer to Lolita!
The film opens with Alejandro (Alterio), a wealthy and reclusive widower, listening to classical music in his living room and pretending to conduct the orchestra. We see him first in silhouette; when we first see him in the flesh, he’s riding a horse through the forest. Again, he seems to be conducting an orchestra, though this time the music is in his head. Alejandro is something of a dreamer and a rebel, a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, and the drum he hears is distinct in his head. It isn’t a drum, actually; it is Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, a piece based on the Book of Genesis and inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem that is, in part, about the Fall of Man. Foreshadowing perhaps?
Alejandro’s cerebral concert is interrupted by an egg striking his head. Befuddled as to its origin, he rides away, only to find a red scarf monogrammed with a ‘G’ attached to a tree limb. Back at home, Al amuses himself by listening to his music and playing chess against a computerized board. He tells the game, “I see you coming. But I will not fall into your trap.” Definitely foreshadowing. Meanwhile, the scarf still intrigues him. To whom does it belong? Amparo, Al’s housekeeper, comes in, interrupting his reverie. Al has an antagonistic relationship with the woman, who puts up with his moodiness and eccentricities with great forbearance. The two exchange shouts and insults more often than not. Al really doesn’t want her there, and only tolerates her presence because she manages the household affairs, leaving him to his daydreams, the only thing that makes him happy since his wife’s demise. Amparo berates him for letting basic household upkeep slip, using his dead wife’s memory to guilt trip him, but Al is not interested in such things.
Again Al wanders into the woods, this time finding a note with a feather attached that says, “The goldfinch feather will take you to the great tree. G.” He can’t help but follow the clue. His curiosity stoked, he climbs up the remains of the ancient dead tree he frequently visits, only to find another note pinned to the top, again with a feather. “The jay feather will lead you down the stream. G.” At the stream, Al finds yet another note and feather, this one stuck to a limb out in the midst of the stream. Having to traverse the swift waters to get to it, Al is both amused and a little exasperated. The note reads: “The feather of the hawk will take you to the tower. G.” Who would go to such trouble to torment the old man so?
Back at home, Alejandro tries to figure out where the clues came from. After a lead he’s given by Amparo turns out to be a dead end, he decides to visit his only real friend in town, the local parish priest, Eladio. Although Al is an atheist with a dim view of religion, and he and the priest often exchange insults, it is clear that the two men are quite fond of each other. Al brings Eladio a box of chocolates and asks for his help in identifying the handwriting from the notes. The priest is a scholar and has some knowledge of graphology, among other things. He identifies the writing as that of a young girl, and suggests she is stubborn and uneducated but has some native intelligence, sensitivity, passion and a sense of humor. These qualities suggest someone who is a good match for Alejandro, if not as a lover then at least as a companion.
The priest also identifies the tower referred to in the final note as the bell tower of his own church. He and Al decide to climb the tower to look for the next clue. Here Al wonders why the girl has chosen him. What exactly does she see in him? The priest says it’s because he’s a fool and that she’s toying with him for her own amusement. They find the clue, which says, “Falcon feathers will take you to the performance. G.” Eladio warns Al that this game could lead to trouble, and informs him that the local school children are putting on a performance of Macbeth. It seems that Al’s mystery girl may be even younger than he anticipated.
And here we get our first glimpse of the girl, Goyita, (Ana Torrent), who is portraying Lady Macbeth in the play, a difficult and nuanced part that requires great acting skills. Al is immediately taken with the girl’s performance even in the rehearsal. It is evident now that this is no ordinary young girl. She is precocious, spirited and beautiful. I must say: how differently Ms. Torrent looks here than she did in her earlier films! She reminds me a bit of the young Natalie Portman. As Lady Macbeth, some of her lines are provocative. “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,” she says. These are not words one would ordinarily hear coming from the lips of a middle school-aged child. Al is a captive audience, and Goyita is, in turn, distracted by Al’s presence to the point where it begins to affect her performance.
Having been ejected from the rehearsal by the teacher, Al waits for Goyita outside until the rehearsal is over. Their first meeting is in the town square, in the street. Alejandro walks Goyita home, quoting lines from Macbeth himself. Meanwhile, Goyita’s teacher spots them walking together and is obviously concerned. Al—and the audience—finds out here that Goyita is only 13 years old. No wonder her teacher is worried. We also learn that Goyita has been aware of Al for years, and it is only recently that she has decided to get his attention, although she did so coyly, through her little game with the notes and feathers. Isn’t that exactly like something a 13-year-old girl would do? Usually their affections are reserved for boys much closer to their own age though.
They soon arrive at Goyita’s home. It turns out that her father is a policeman. This certainly complicates things. Before they part ways, Goyita mentions that she also knew Alejandro’s wife, yet another element that will cement their bond. And as she is ascending the stairs to her family’s apartment, she whistles. What do you think the tune is? None other than Hadyn’s The Creation, of course. Is it deliberate? Well, Goyita has said that she knows where Al lives. It’s possible—even likely—that she’s heard him listening to this same oratorio. So, it seems she knows very well what she’s doing. The last thing she does before entering her home is stomp several times on the floor, an act which indicates that, although preternaturally bright and mature, she is still a kid after all. Kids tend be noisy when they’re happy. What is the source of Goyita’s joy?
Immediately she is confronted by the police sergeant, who criticizes her for being too loud. Goyita’s relationship with the stern and unpleasant sergeant is one of mutual dislike and mistrust, as we will see.
Back at home in his study, Al asks Amparo if anyone has come to visit. He is eagerly awaiting a visit from his new little friend. He dials the number of the police station, but when someone answers, Al doesn’t speak, afraid to reveal his identity and why he’s calling. The officer on the other end hangs up on him.
We cut to Goyita’s home, where her family is eating dinner. She is in fact the oldest of four children. Psychologists interested in birth order might suggest that this accounts for at least some of Goyita’s high intelligence and early maturity. During dinner, Goyita’s mother criticizes her for climbing trees, calling her a naughty tomboy. It seems poor Goyita is constantly being attacked from all sides. One might say she is the typical misunderstood teen, only she is anything but typical. Goyita’s mom also uses this opportunity to criticize her husband, Goyita’s father, whom she considers a lazy and ineffectual disciplinarian.
Soon the sergeant appears, inviting himself into the house. Goyita’s dad rises when the sarge—his boss—enters. Since the family lives over the police station, the sarge is apt to appear at any time. The sergeant insinuates that Goyita has been climbing to the building’s roof, and the girl curtly answers, “That’s a lie,” earning her a smack to the back of the head from her mom. We find out that Goyita’s given name is actually Gregoria; Goyita, or sometimes Goya, is a diminutive nickname. The sarge accuses Goyita of leaving the attic door open and of breaking out a window. She denies it, but her mother takes the sergeant’s side. She ends Goyita’s meal and sends her to her bedroom as punishment for these offenses.
Alejandro prowls around Goyita’s school, waiting for her to get out of class. Goyita’s teacher, Marisa, spots him and addresses him. Their conversation is warm and friendly. I can’t help but think that, if such a thing occurred in this day and age, the teacher would likely call the authorities immediately, and she certainly wouldn’t be friendly towards the man. In fact, she apologizes for being rude to him the other day when she chased him away from the rehearsal. Meanwhile, Goyita watches the conversation from a nearby window. She seems worried. What are her teacher and her new friend discussing?
Well, Marisa is inviting him to the performance of Macbeth! The old man isn’t sure he’ll be able to make it, though of course there is a powerful drawing card in the form of Goyita. He wonders if Goyita was assigned this difficult role as some kind of punishment. This isn’t a bad assumption. Goyita certainly has a tendency to be mischievous. But no, she is studying acting and volunteered for the part. She’s the real deal, Al realizes, a girl truly interested in the arts. His fascination for her only deepens.
Later, Alejandro enters an artist’s studio that’s full of old paintings and objets d’art. It should come as no surprise that Alejandro is an aesthete, an admirer of beautiful things. The artist turns out to be a young woman he is well acquainted with by the name of Mercedes. Indeed, the two are lovers and their relationship is something of an open secret. Yet, their relationship is well organized, with Al showing up at certain times each month. This time, however, he has shown up early. Something—or someone—has stirred up his passion, causing him to break out of his usual routines. I wonder who that someone could be?
When a young couple shows up at the studio to invite Mercedes to some film event, she casually informs them that she and Alejandro are lovers. Al feels like she is mocking him because she doesn’t really want to be seen with the old man. She promptly informs him that he doesn’t understand her at all. She’s right, for, although the two are lovers, they aren’t really compatible, though not because of their age difference. They simply have different temperaments. Anyway, to prove her sincerity, Mercedes drags him into the street and kisses him passionately before all and sundry. There can be no doubt now that she cares about him, but what are his feelings toward her? Note that she’s wearing red, the same color we usually see Goyita in. Red has long been associated with passion and sexuality; so it is here.
Goyita shows up at Al’s home on her bicycle. The gardener nearly sends her away, but Al happens to see her ride up and alerts her to his presence and meets her on the lawn. His joy at her presence is obvious. This is a man in love, no doubt. Though Al is pleased to see her, he also takes time to lecture her about leaving home without her parents’ sanction.
Today this same story would be spun another way: Al would be a selfish sexual predator, a one-note villain who doesn’t really care about Goyita and manipulates her to get into her pants, and Goyita would be a lonely innocent who doesn’t understand what she’s getting into. It would be a cautionary tale about the dangers of underage girls meeting up with strange older men. But this film is far too classy and nuanced for that. Alejandro does care about the girl, and while his emotions are running high, sex is the farthest thing from his mind at this moment.
Unfortunately, Al’s scolding, though gentle, upsets Goyita and she storms off. But Al intercepts her; he doesn’t want her to leave, of course. She says she came by yesterday and he was gone; she asks where he was. He was in Madrid, he tells her, a bald-faced lie. He was actually in Salamanca (which, incidentally, suggests their town is somewhere in the vicinity of Avila), meeting his lover. Perhaps, then, Goyita has another reason to be upset. Does she intuitively understand that he has been with a lover? Maybe she is jealous after all. Yet, she decides to stay.
As the two walk through the woods, Goyita insists that Alejandro not visit her at the school, or talk to her teacher for that matter. More jealousy? It must be said, the young teacher is quite beautiful. Or is Goyita simply worried that word of their meetings will get back to her parents? Whatever the case, Al promises to do neither of those things in the future. Next she wants to know why he wears a beard, telling him that it makes him look old. This is our first real hint that Goyita’s feelings about Al are more than emotional. She desires for him to look younger, more pleasing to her eye, which means she has been assessing his appearance as someone of the opposite sex. And yet, when he asks her if she’d like him to get rid of it, she emphatically replies, “No.” She is confused by her own feelings, perhaps even fighting them. They hear a bird chirping in the vicinity. Is it a goldfinch, Al wonders? Goyita identifies it as a coal tit. She is forever correcting him on his bird identifications thereafter. The girl definitely knows her birds! Is she equally adept at identifying the bees? Well . . .
Goyita asks about his necklace, which he tells her is a talisman meant to remind him of the concentration camp he was put into by the Francoists during the Spanish civil war. It’s interesting that all three of the Ana Torrent films we have examined are connected to the Spanish Civil War in some way; few outside Spain can imagine the impact of that event on the lives of those who lived through it and through the Franco regime. Al in turn asks Goyita how she knew his wife. As it so happens, she was, like Goyita, a bird nest enthusiast.
In one of the most poignant scenes in the film (which kicks off an extended montage sequence set to music of The Creation), Alejandro and Goyita stand near what appears to be a broken monument in the countryside, both pretending to be conductors. This is a metaphorical manifestation of their love for each other and their perfect compatibility, as they work together to conduct their imaginary orchestra. In their minds they are perfectly in sync; but, of course, the realm of the imagination is not reality. Previously Al had occupied the raised spot in their relative positions, but in an act that conveys multiple layers of meaning, Al steps down and leads Goyita to the higher position. He is not only demonstrating his true love for the girl by literally placing her on a pedestal, he is also stepping down from his post as representative of his generation and allowing the next generation to replace him. He’s old and he knows it, soon to die. More foreshadowing.
As the montage continues, they dance. Couples dancing has a semiotic relationship to sex. This doesn’t mean that Alejandro and Goyita have had sex (or will), only that if they did, it might look something like this—honest, attentive, joyful and elegant. We will see the dancing again, and each time it happens, the camera moves in a little closer as their relationship becomes more intimate. In another kind of dance, the two circle and weave around each other on their bicycles. Their relationship is being forged and strengthened with these actions.
The montage continues with skeet shooting, Al shooting the skeet while Goyita works the skeet thrower. He’s a crack shot. Remember that, because it will be relevant later. This is also another sexual metaphor. Al then teaches Goyita to fire the shotgun. Again, these activities do not imply actual sex; they merely indicate what a sexual relationship would be like between them, a perfect give and take. Despite their huge age difference, they are perfectly compatible in their shared world. Would that this was all there was. But it isn’t. The reality is, they must contend with the rest of the world, and there is where their compatibility breaks down, for their huge age disparity will inevitably mean heartbreak for Goyita.
The montage continues to unfold, and we see our pair riding horses together, a bit more dancing, and then they play Leapfrog. It is interesting to note that, among the activities supposedly enjoyed by Edgar Allen Poe and his own 13-year-old bride was this game. The couple lived in New York City (specifically, Fordham) for a brief time, and there are accounts of Poe and Virginia playing Leapfrog in Central Park with friends of theirs. Finally, Alejandro and Goyita climb a tree to examine a bird’s nest before the montage ends.
Later, as they prepare for bed, Goyita’s two younger sisters, as small children are wont to do, tease their elder sibling about having a boyfriend. Goyita denies that Alejandro is her boyfriend, and the sisters call him a holy fool. They have no idea what that means; they’ve only heard the sergeant refer to Al by this term. It starts an argument between Goyita and her sisters.
Back at Alejandro’s place, Al proclaims to Father Eladio that he’s a normal man, and yet he’s obsessed with this young girl. The implication here is that Al is no pedophile or sex deviant; he has never been interested in young girls before, but now he finds himself in love with one. To be fair, Goyita is hardly an average girl. But what a quandary to be in! Eladio tells him that if he didn’t know Al, he would’ve reported him to the authorities, yet he knows his friend would never hurt the girl. Eladio suggests that Al should marry his lover Mercedes to get his mind off the girl and put an end to his loneliness. Eladio asks how old the girl is, to which Al replies “110 years,” a joke referring to Goya’s precocious nature.
When they meet again, Goyita asks Alejandro what a holy fool is, to which he describes himself to a T, right down to the clothes he wears. Goyita has the gardener call the police station to inform them that “Goya Menendez is eating dinner with her school friend.” Again, Al lectures her about lying, especially to her parents. Goyita dons Al’s headphones, a gesture meant to convey that she isn’t listening to Al’s lecturing. When he removes the headphones and repeats his point, she again threatens to leave. She has no patience for Al treating her as an elder treats a willful child; she sees him as an equal and wants him to treat her the same way. Again he stops her from leaving and agrees with her point that they must lie about their relationship. Perhaps he is finally seeing it for what it is, whereas Goyita, with youth’s ability to pierce instantly through facades, had seen it that way all along.
Alejandro tells Goyita that he dislikes the civil guard (police). This seems to make her happy; she dislikes them too. She asks to see his deceased wife’s bedroom, a request that makes Al uncomfortable for a couple of reasons, but he agrees to do so nonetheless. At this point Goyita attempts to properly seduce Alejandro. She picks up his wife’s brush and begins brushing her own hair with it. She tells Al that his wife was unattractive in comparison to her, describing the woman as short, stocky and small-breasted!
She then goes through his wife’s old things, finding a beautiful blue dress that she holds up to herself. She clearly has plans to replace Al’s absent spouse. She says that it’s rumored that Al married for money rather than love. This accusation finally pushes Al past his breaking point, and he becomes angry, but Goyita quells his anger by pointing out that she never actually believed the rumors. She asks why they never had children. Al says it was because his wife was barren, an answer that satisfies Goyita, who may be thinking about having kids with Al herself. Finally, Goyita wonders if his wife suffered as she was dying. Al says that he suffered more than she did.
Then they have dinner. The meal is elaborate, but only because Goyita is there. She is flattered that Al would go to such trouble for her. Later, while the two are looking at bird nests, Al asks why Goyita chose him. “For everything,” she tells him. Giving up the pretense of cautiousness, Al decides to drive Goyita home. On the way, her teacher spots her in Al’s car and is obviously worried about her student. Before she leaves his car, Goyita asks him if he likes her. He tells her that she’s a child, albeit a bright and sensitive one. But that’s not what Goyita wants to hear; she wants to know if he likes her as a woman, and says that if he doesn’t, she will leave and never speak to him again. She’s giving him an ultimatum: either love me on my terms or don’t love me at all. Al tells her that he does indeed like her as a woman, but that it isn’t normal for someone his age to be attracted to a 13-year-old girl. She asks for and receives a kiss from him (a chaste one on the cheek). He says to her that if people tell her bad things about him, she shouldn’t believe them. She agrees wholeheartedly.
While speaking to Goyita’s teacher, who has ostensibly come to ask him about music for the play, Al asks her why she agreed to let the girl play Lady Macbeth. “Because she is evil enough to understand the role,” the teacher insists. The teacher then asks him why he chose Goyita. He never really answers her, but he points out that Goyita forbade him to talk to her, so he is violating his promise by even speaking to her.
He and Goyita meet again in the woods. They swear a blood oath, mingling their blood in an act that mimics consummation. They each carve their own first initial into the palm of the other and rub the wounds together. Goyita then gives Al her red scarf, and Al gives Goyita his talisman. Goyita then asks him to burn all of the pictures of his wife as well as her clothes and other belongings. This he refuses to do, and she leaves.
Back at school, the teacher asks to see Goyita’s hand. When she asks what the ‘A’ means, Goyita says, “Nothing.” Because it is a letter A, the teacher asks all the boys whose names begin with A to stand. But none of them have an initial on their hands. She then asks all the children with an initial to raise their hands. Every child laughingly raises their hand. The kids are making a joke of Goyita’s love, but the teacher still believes it is another child who shared the blood oath with Goyita. She tells her students that childhood romances are normal, though she does have some concerns about the cutting because of the risk of infection.
Later, as Marisa is painting props for the play, Goyita pays her a visit. While getting her to help with the painting, the teacher also devises a plan to get Goyita to reveal what’s going on with her: she will ask Goyita a personal question, and for every question she asks her, Goyita will get to ask Marisa a personal question in turn. Goyita agrees to these terms.
After a few throwaway questions, Marisa gets down to the nitty-gritty. “What does ‘A’ mean?” inquires Marisa. Goyita replies, “You already know,” but she admits it stands for Alejandro. Goyita asks what will be on the next test, which, by the established rules, the teacher must answer and does, but she isn’t happy about it. How clever our girl is! The teacher then asks if Goyita has the ‘G’ on his hand, which of course he does. Goyita then wants to know why her teacher went to visit her friend. She responds that she wanted to know if he was a trustworthy person. The teacher then asks what it is Goyita and Alejandro do together. Goyita lists the things they do, which does not include anything sexual. The teacher advises Goyita to end the relationship, but Goyita claims it has already ended because he refused to do everything she commanded him to do. (Despite the stereotype, it is clearly Goyita who is in charge of the relationship and doing all the manipulating.) Even so, this is a lie on Goyita’s part—her relationship with Al may have undergone a temporary setback, but it is hardly over.
The film cuts back to Alejandro’s place. Although he had refused to destroy his wife’s belongings, in the end he does as Goyita asked, burning her clothes and the photos of her in his yard. It seems that no matter how much he resists, he cannot refuse Goyita in the end. This is what true love has done to him.
The next morning, Goyita discovers that the sergeant has released her pet falcon, which rightly enrages Goyita. She then happens upon the sergeant screaming at her father, presumably about his daughter’s shenanigans. Goyita confronts the sergeant about her bird, but he simply shouts at her and calls her an idiot, then chases her out of his office. Goyita, visibly upset, vows to kill the sergeant. It’s an empty threat, of course; she is no murderer. But she despises him that much.
Al visits his wife’s grave, and the priest finds him there. Eladio tells Al that the townsfolk, including the girl’s family, all know about their little romance. Most people think Al is a bit koo-koo but basically a decent guy. A small minority think he’s a sex maniac, however, and that he should be taught a lesson. Eladio says he should beware of the latter group. Alejandro tells Eladio that for the first time in his life he is really living.
When Goyita returns home for supper that night, her mother informs her that she is being shipped off to her aunt’s, and sends her to bed without her supper. Her father too has had enough, it seems. He removes his belt, preparing to give her a lashing. Goyita wants to know why she’s being punished. After all, it’s not like she and Alejandro are hurting anyone or doing anything wrong. All they do is ride horses, listen to music and so on. As it so happens, the anger from her father is all a front to fool his wife. He doesn’t actually whip Goyita but repeatedly strikes the bed beside her instead. This makes her mother happy, as she thinks her daughter is finally getting her long-deserved punishment, but her dad seems to understand his daughter better than her mother does.
Later, Alejandro tells Goyita that he bought a bird guide. It seems Goyita has instilled in him her love of birds. But now she is upset, for she is being sent away on Friday to live with her aunt. This will be the last time they will get to be together. She tells him too that the sergeant released her bird and took away the talisman Al gave her. She asks him to kill the sergeant for her.
Back at home, Alejandro’s reminiscences of his times with Goyita are interrupted by Amparo. In the past this would’ve made him angry, but it’s clear from their exchange that he is a changed man thanks to Goyita. He treats his servant much better now. Moreover, he is a broken man. The loss of the love of his life has ripped the heart out of him.
In their final meeting, Al reveals to his priest friend that he spent five years in the seminary. They share a laugh over that. Al decides to track down Goyita to her aunt’s place. Of course, she can only watch him through the window, but she is very happy to see him. It will be his final view of her, and he will take it to his grave.
Alejandro next goes to the police station, where he challenges the sergeant to a duel. The sergeant thinks he’s joking, but he is quite serious. He assures the sergeant that he is a terrible shot, but of course we know better. Later, Al waits on the cliff to ambush the sergeant, who brings Goyita’s father with him. They both carry machine guns, hardly a fair gunfight. But Al doesn’t care about this anyway. He fires on the sergeant and apparently misses. He then stands in the open, waiting, and the sarge easily mows him down. After killing Alejandro, the officers discover that Al was using blanks. The thing is, Al had had the advantage because he was on higher ground, and he saw the sergeant well before the sergeant saw him. Plus, he was a great shot. He could easily have killed the sergeant if he’d wanted to, but he’d never intended to do so; his plan had been suicide by cop all along.
Many of the townsfolk show up for his funeral, including the policemen, the teacher and the priest. Goyita later visits his grave, which has been erected on the same site where the old monument once stood and where he and Goyita first danced. She vows to never give herself to another as long as she lives. She says that he taught her a new word beginning with A: Amor. She carves another A into her palm and places it against his grave. The final shot is of Goyita conducting The Creation from Alejandro’s gravesite.