The Girl as Angel of Death: Ana Torrent, Pt. 2 (Cría cuervos)

Despite being wildly popular in her debut film, The Spirit of the Beehive, Ana Torrent was never meant to act again.  Her father, who was bothered by the turmoil wrought in Ana’s life by the process of filming as well as its aftermath, forbade her to appear in another film.  But Fate had other plans.  As it so happened, noted Spanish director Carlos Saura had seen the earlier movie and decided he had to have her for his next project, Cría cuervos.  Saura created the film as a vehicle specifically for Ana Torrent, and he informed the girl’s father that if Ana couldn’t be in his film, it simply would not be made at all.  Talk about persuasion!  At that point Saura was internationally famous, having ten full-length feature films to his credit, including what was his most significant one up to that date, Peppermint FrappéWith that kind of clout, it was apparently an offer Mr. Torrent couldn’t refuse.  Whatever the case, Saura won the day and Ana Torrent performed in the second of what would become a lifetime’s worth of movies and television episodes thereafter.  (Note: her third film would be another Saura project, Elisa, vida mía, though this time in a supporting role.)

At any rate, it is easy to understand why Saura was so impressed with little Ana, and why he wanted her for his movie.  For one thing, Torrent would spend much of her time in both films interacting with the young costars who play her siblings.  For another, both films are really political allegories masked as family dramas, and both are ultimately critical of the Franco regime, so viewers who saw The Spirit of the Beehive would’ve already had those associations in their minds when they first saw Cría cuervos.  With her debut film, Torrent had already become a mascot for anti-Francoist sentiment, and Saura merely extended that concept.  Finally, both films artfully extract the deep tenderness of the little girl’s strikingly large peepers.  There is little question that Torrent was ideal for this role.

With that in mind, we begin our analysis of the film.  Our story takes place in Madrid, Spain, modern times (mid-1970s, when the film was made).  The first shots in Cría cuervos are of pages from a family album, beginning first with images of Ana (Ana Torrent), the middle daughter of three and the main protagonist of the film, who is looking through the album in question.  These photos are interesting in that some are clearly real family snapshots of Torrent, since she is much younger in them than the character she is playing, which means they must’ve been on loan to Saura from Torrent’s parents.  Note the bathing costumes, which are topless—quintessentially European, no?

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (1)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (1)

The next few pages of the album expands our cast to include Ana’s sisters, Irene (Conchi Pérez) and Maite (Maite Sánchez).  Family photographs like these are symbolically important to the film and will be seen several times throughout.  Photos can be understood as memory placeholders, with memories being a central theme in Cría cuervos. It is relevant that Saura began his career as a photographer before he became a filmmaker, so he understands the language of still photography, which lends this photo album a realism that doesn’t feel forced or fake.  In this case, where sisters are seen together, these photos would’ve been taken by Saura.  I like that some are black & white and some are in color.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (2)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (2)

The next page reveals photos of her parents’ courtship.  We also see a photo of Anselmo in his military uniform—he is an officer in the Franco military regime.

When we first meet Ana herself, she is descending a staircase in the dark of night, having caught the sounds of two people whispering to each other in the downstairs master bedroom.  It is her father, Anselmo, and his lover, Amelia.  Semiotically we may read this as a child’s descent into the sordid world of adults.  Ana stands in the darkness, dressed in white, a classic symbol of innocence and purity threatened by the moral corruption all around her.  As she quietly waits, she hears her father gasping for breath, and then silence.  What is going on here?

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (3)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (3)

A beautiful young woman—Amelia—suddenly flees from the master bedroom in haste, heading out of the house and into the street.  Ana immediately enters her father’s bedroom, only to find him lying dead in his own bed.  Now we know why his mistress booked it out of there.  Did she kill him?  In contrast, Ana seems mysteriously unaffected by her dad’s death.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (4)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (4)

Upon confirming that he is dead, Ana scans the room until she locates a mostly empty glass of milk.  This she takes to the kitchen, washing it and carefully putting it away, Ana proceeds to the refrigerator to fetch lettuce for her pet guinea pig. If you look carefully at the bottom of the fridge, you will note a plate of raw chicken feet.  We will see these again.  The chicken feet are, in fact, an allusion to the film’s title, which translates to Raise Ravens.  The title itself comes from an old Spanish proverb: Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos (Raise ravens, and they’ll take out your eyes).  The proverb is believed to have been started by Álvaro de Luna, Duke of Trujillo, in the 15th century.  The story goes that de Luna was hunting in the forest one day when he happened upon a blind beggar with scarred eyes.  The beggar remarked that he had affectionately raised a raven for three years, only to have it attack him one day and leave him blind, to which Don Álvaro responded with the now famous line.  Although it is not yet apparent, the meaning of this proverb in application to the film will be obvious soon enough.

Ana’s mother appears for the first time in this scene as well.  There is clearly great love and affection between Maria (Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of silent film star Charlie Chaplin and a frequent collaborator with Saura) and her daughter.  It is nice to see Torrent smile, something she doesn’t do much of in her earlier film.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (5)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (5)

Ana takes lettuce to her pet guinea pig, Roni, whom she adores.  Roni and the family maid, Rosa, are really her only true friends.  Although the sisters do love each other, Irene is too preoccupied with boys and her own life to pay much attention to Ana, and Maite is too young to understand her.

Next we see all the girls in the bathroom, along with Rosa, getting ready to attend their father’s funeral.  One thing you’ll notice about European family dramas is that there is almost always a bathroom scene, usually with one or more children being bathed, and these scenes generally do not shy away from nudity.  Although none of the children are bathing this time, later we will see Maite being bathed while the other two girls hang out in the bathroom.  American films, by contrast, rarely feature such scenes, or if they do, they tend to be quick and there is almost never any nudity.  And you certainly wouldn’t see the entire family hanging out in the bathroom while one of the children is bathing.  Why the huge difference?  For one thing, Europeans generally are much more laid back about nudity.  It is accepted as a part of life and not necessarily viewed sexually.  Whereas Americans seem to have trouble dissociating nudity from sex, even when it is a child’s body that is nude.  There is something oddly violent and barbaric about this notion that we cannot help but impose sexuality onto the nude body.  It is not unlike how certain Islamic cultures insist on making females cover up.  Anyway, these scenes are often communal and intimate in nature, signifying the closeness of the family.

Ana’s mother suddenly appears in this scene, combing her daughter’s hair and being playfully affectionate.  Isn’t it curious that neither of the other children seems to notice she’s there?  In fact, as we soon learn, this is all in Ana’s head, as was the earlier appearance of Maria.  You see, Ana’s mother is dead, having passed away at some unspecified point not too long ago.  Ana has visions of her mother frequently.  She also begins to have visions of her father, though these are of an entirely different nature, far less romanticized.  With the death of their father, the girls are now orphans, but they remain in their home, with their mother’s sister, their aunt Paulina, now raising them.

Thus, like her character in The Spirit of the Beehive, Ana is another starry-eyed dreamer.  It now becomes evident that Cría cuervos is more than just the spiritual successor to Erice’s film.  There are far too many similarities.  One can almost think of it as a sequel, with the Ana from Beehive growing up to become the mother of this Ana, and the sibling from Beehive now raising her sister’s girls.  Do you recall how I pointed out that Isabel would do well under Franco?  Paulina is obviously very similar to Isabel—there is something of the cruel fascist in her, as we will soon see.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (6)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (6)

At their father’s funeral, each of the girls is asked by Paulina to kiss their father and pray for his soul, which both Irene and Maite do dutifully, but Ana refuses, arousing her aunt’s contempt.  It has been said that Saura predicted the death of Franco with this film, as he died not long after the film was released.  In that case, Ana is yet again a political allegory, a symbol of the growing resistance and antipathy toward the aging dictator.  The disobedient Ana hides behind her grandmother, who is feeble and voiceless and can’t really protect her, but it’s comforting to Ana nonetheless.  Amelia, whom Ana understandably dislikes, also shows up at the funeral.  Ana tries to hide from her.  On the political level, Amelia is Franco’s dark side, his dirty secret, which isn’t really a secret because Ana (representing Saura) knows about it, even if she never speaks of it.

While the children are playing in a small park near their townhouse, Ana has a strange vision of herself standing on the roof of a nearby building.  Is she a bird up there?  A raven perhaps?  She imagines herself leaping from the building, flying around above their heads and looking down from the sky.  This child will never be accused of lacking an imagination!  But the scene reminds us that Ana is an unreliable narrator.  Not everything she sees can be believed.

Ana sneaks off into a storage cellar near her house in search of a can of baking soda, which she has mysteriously hidden here.  We learn that Ana’s mother once told her that this can of baking soda was a powerful poison as a way to motivate Ana to dispose of it.  This is exactly the kind of white lie parents use all the time to manipulate their children’s behavior.  Little did she know that Ana would keep it around for her own purposes.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (7)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (7)

This scene cuts away to Ana as an adult (also played by Geraldine Chaplin).  She is a narrator who breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera, saying, “Why did I want to kill my father? I’ve asked myself that question hundreds of times, and all the answers I can think of now, with twenty years hindsight, are too simple. They don’t convince me. The only thing I remember very clearly is that at the time I was convinced my father was responsible for all the sadness that embittered the last years of my mother’s life.”

And now Ana’s apathetic reaction to her father’s death, and her unwillingness to kiss his corpse, makes perfect sense, as does the glass of milk she carried from his room and washed.  Ana believes she got away with murder.  Of course, baking soda is hardly poisonous, but Ana doesn’t know that.  Her father’s death is purely coincidental.

More photographs appear in the next scene, this time of Ana’s mother as a child; in one of them she’s dressed in a bizarre low-cut swimsuit.  It is revealed in this sequence that Ana’s mom was a highly proficient piano player, as was Carlos Saura’s mother.  Many of the elements of this film are autobiographical, in fact, but piano playing mothers resurface again and again in Saura’s films.  Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Saura filmography will know that music plays an important part in almost all of them.  So to this one, in the form of a song that Ana likes to sing along to, which we will discuss in a bit.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (8)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (8)

When we see the three girls next, they are eating dinner with their aunt.  Paulina lectures the girls about their bad eating habits and informs them that she will not have them behaving improperly, which is almost amusing in light of Ana’s murderous impulses.  Ana continues to resist her aunt’s control, back-talking her in this scene.

We cut to a scene of Ana helping Rosa clean.  Men are pigs who only want one thing, Rosa informs Ana.  She tells Ana that her father was a philandering horndog and had even
come on to her, which sets Ana’s imagination rolling.  She sees her father come in and flirt with Rosa, but the maid encourages it rather than resisting him as she claimed she had.

This transitions into a scene of Irene and Maite discussing Irene’s fascination with the boy who lives across the street.  Irene apparently sent him a love note, but he has not yet replied.  Irene is already boy crazy.  She even points out how handsome her father’s soldier friend (Nicholas, who is waiting downstairs) is while they all cut out images from magazines for Irene’s scrapbook.  Meanwhile, Ana listens to her favorite song, Porque te vas sung by Jeanette.  It’s a sad tune about missing someone who has gone away, a concept Ana is clearly familiar with.  Ana’s mother’s death continues to haunt her.  Though largely unheard of until this film came out, the song became a hit throughout Europe thanks to Cría cuervos.

The children then decide to dance to this song.  This scene was not choreographed.  Saura told the children to dance however they liked, which they did.  They pair off in traditional couples, starting with Irene and Maite, then Ana and Irene, and finally Ana and Maite.  The giggling girls obviously enjoyed this scene immensely.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (9)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (9)

While their aunt is away, the children get into her makeup and clothes, playing dress-up.  They then concoct a little play that mimics the adults in their family, with Irene portraying their father Anselmo, Ana playing their mother (who else?) and Maite taking on the part of the maid, Rosa.  The scene they recount is one they are all no doubt very familiar with: Anselmo returns home late in the evening, much to Maria’s consternation.  An argument ensues, and Anselmo accuses Maria of making his life miserable with her whining.  Maria accuses him of being what he is: a philanderer.  When their aunt returns, she is irritated but also somewhat amused.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (10)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (10)

Next we have the bath scene, which is almost de rigueur for European films of this type.  Maite gets a bath while the other two girls wash the makeup off their faces and watch their aunt bathe their sister.  When Maite jumps right back out after being put in because the water is too hot, Paulina struggles to get her to go back in and stay in, much to Irene’s amusement. This was clearly not planned, and Maite’s complaints indicate the water really was a bit too hot for the little actress.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (11)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (11)

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (12)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (12)

Then we see the narrator again, the adult Ana.  She says, “I can’t understand people who say that childhood is the happiest time of one’s life.  It certainly wasn’t for me.  Maybe that’s why I don’t believe in a childlike paradise or that children are innocent or good by nature.  I remember my childhood as an interminably long and sad time filled with fear. Fear of the unknown.  There are things I can’t forget.  It’s unbelievable how powerful memories can be.”

Saura’s take on children is a sensitive and generous one.  It’s one of the things I think distinguishes good childhood dramas from bad ones.  European filmmakers tend to do these better than anyone, and I do not think this is coincidental.  They do not whitewash childhood or force it to conform to some comfortable, idealized shape the way Hollywood often does.  Because of that, it is evident that European audiences have a better understanding of childhood than Americans do.  Consequently, I believe that, on the whole, they tend to be more tolerant and sensitive parents than Americans, who often size their children up against Hollywood’s idealized version, which real kids will inevitably fall short of, disappointing their parents.

Anyway, it is subsequently revealed that Ana’s mom was sent home from the hospital to die, since there was nothing more they could do for her there.  She has cancer.  Ana, who is the only one of the girls there (along with Rosa), finds her mother in agony, half out of her head. This is, of course, another scene from Ana’s memory.  Ana can’t stand to hear her mother’s cries of pain so she covers her ears, only to wake from her daydream afterward.  Later, she has another late night encounter with her mother’s memory.  She asks if she can stay with Mama, who replies, “Do you know what time it is? It’s very late.” Late here has a double meaning, referring both to the time of day and to death (as in, the late, great so-and-so . . .)  But it has an additional meaning as well: it is too late for Ana to save her mother, which Ana, being a child, feels somewhat guilty for, as if she had any power to stop terminal cancer!  Ana asks her mother, “Why don’t you play that song I like so much?”  Notice the photo hanging on the wall, directly between mother and child.  In the photo the positions of the figures are reversed in relation to the film characters—Maria was once a child, and Ana will someday be a mother.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (13)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (13)

Ana then gives her mother a kiss before heading off to bed.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (14)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (14)

This leads to another memory: when Anselmo comes in late, Maria discovers he had fun that evening without her.  Meanwhile, she is suffering and wishes to die.  It is easy to understand how Ana concluded that her father’s shenanigans are what killed Maria.  Anselmo doesn’t believe her when she tells him she is ill—he negates her at every turn and treats her like a child, even as he claims to love her.  A nice metaphor for fascism.

After a dream about her mother, Ana wakes in tears, calling out, “Mama! Mama!” in one of the most poignant scenes in the film.  When Aunt Paulina shows up to comfort Ana, the little girl informs her aunt that she wants to die too.  When her aunt begins to tell her a story that her mother used to tell her—Little Almond—Ana then tells her aunt she wishes she would die as well for daring to try to replace her mother.  Ana is obsessed with death, and no wonder, having lost both parents at such a young age.  She dwells on death far more than she should, and her feelings about it are mixed and complex.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (15)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (15)

This leads into a scene of Ana playing in an empty, abandoned swimming pool in the park.  Ana the adult narrator points out here that: “Not all of my memories of that period are sad.  Among my fondest memories, few can compare to that weekend.  I can’t really think why that particular trip remained vivid in my mind.  I don’t know, but I felt free, new, different.”

The trip to which she is referring is one where Paulina takes the girls to visit family friends Nicholas and Amelia (the latter being her father’s illicit lover, of course) in the country.   When they arrive, Paulina and the girls are greeted by Nicholas and Amelia in front of their huge country estate.  Ana is used to cramped city life—little wonder that she remembers this weekend so vividly.  Outside, on their own, the girls decide to play hide-and-seek.  Ana counts down while Irene and Maite hide.  The rules here are slightly different than traditional hide-and-seek—when Ana finds Maite hiding behind a tree, she insists that Maite must lie down and play dead.  The same goes for Irene when Ana finds her.  This is a continuation of Ana’s obsession with death.  Ana then kneels and prays to her guardian angel, asking that the angel not leave her alone and bring her sisters back to life.  A strange ritual added to the original game.  If only it were that easy to raise people from the dead . . .

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (16)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (16)

When the adults decide to take a walk outside, Ana imagines both her mother and father among them.  Maria strolls with her sister while Anselmo naturally walks alongside Amelia.  Mother tells Ana to go find her father, and when she does, she finds him making out with Amelia in some nearby woods.

Back home, Ana chides her baby doll for peeing her pants, then pretends to breastfeed it while Rosa works nearby.  Ana has quite the interesting conversation with Rosa here.  She asks about Rosa’s own children, and Rosa shows her how to properly hold a baby to burp it.  Rosa points out that Ana’s father was angry when she was born, because God had cursed him with another girl.  (Maite will, of course, make a third when she comes along.)  She also says that forceps were needed to pull Ana out of her mother’s womb, causing dents in her head.  Rosa also claims she had to nurse Ana because her mother was too weak, though with a bottle, not her breast.  Strangely, Ana pesters Rosa to show her her breasts, which she refuses at first, but finally she flashes them.  It is unclear whether this actually occurs or takes place in Ana’s head.  “They’re so big,” Ana whispers in awe.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (17)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (17)

In the next scene, Ana helps her grandmother look at the wall of photos.  At this point Ana has developed a keen interest in her grandma’s history, pointing to certain photos and asking about them.  When Ana begins to recount a story about a hotel in one of the photos, linking it with her grandmother’s honeymoon, Grandma begins to feel uncomfortable.  It brings up too many memories for her, and she becomes depressed.  Ana asks the old woman if she’d like to die, to which the woman nods in ascent.  Ana
has a solution, saying she has a poison she can give her.  Grandmother seems willing at first, but when she realizes the poison is merely baking soda, she changes her mind,
genuinely disappointed.

It is peculiar to think of Ana as an Angel of Death, but it demonstrates that her interest in poisoning people isn’t all selfish.  In the course of the film, Ana has wished for or offered death to nearly everyone in her family, including herself.  Is it perhaps that she believes they will all be reunited in the afterlife?  At any rate, it is clear that she doesn’t fully comprehend what death is.  She only knows that it takes people away, and she does not see it as evil in itself.  After all, she loves her grandmother and only wants to help her.  Perhaps she is flirting with the idea of suicide, verifying through her grandmother that it is an acceptable way to end one’s pain and sadness.  She is not a terribly happy girl, and the fact that it has even occurred to her that death might be a solution to one’s problems is the greatest tragedy of all here.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (18)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (18)

Her obsession with death will only be amplified when she returns to her room and finds her guinea pig dying.  She comforts him as he passes away.  And, of course, she buries him in a shoe box in her yard, saying the Lord’s Prayer over the casket.  Maite comes
out to watch, and she is confused about death, asking Irene what happens when people die.  Irene says, “I don’t know, they just die.”  Ana smears mud on her face, perhaps to be
closer to Roni—they are sharing this sacred earth.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (19)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (19)

Later Rosa and the girls decide to clean Anselmo’s office.  “What did daddy do during the war?” inquires Irene.  Rosa isn’t sure.  He fought alongside the Nazis in Russia, she states.  Meanwhile, Ana finds the pistol her father promised would be hers one day.  Rosa orders her to put it back, but Ana says, “It’s mine!”  Ana refuses to give it up, so Rosa tells her to ask her aunt about it.  Ana promptly marches into the parlor and points the pistol at Aunt Paulina and Nicholas, who are being intimate on the couch.  Earlier Nicholas had confessed to Paulina that his marriage was a sham and that it was Paulina he really loved.  This looks like a disaster waiting to happen, and it nearly is.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (20)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (20)

“Ana, why do you want a gun? Guns are for boys,” Nicholas tells her.  Her father gave it to her, she informs him.  Nicholas identifies the gun as a Luger Parabellum .38, a gun commonly carried by Nazi officers.  When he asks to see it, revealing it’s loaded, Paulina slaps Ana in the face out of fear.  The slap is real, and so are the tears that follow.  Poor Ana Torrent.  Does she remember this scene, I wonder?

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (21)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (21)

Back in her room, Ana again listens to her favorite song, mouthing the words along with it and primping.  “Turn that music down,” she says, mimicking her aunt.  “I hope she dies,” she adds, the second time she has willed death on her aunt.  This gives her the idea of poisoning Paulina.  She mixes up some of her false poison concoction, giving it to her aunt.  Of course, it doesn’t kill her.  Paulina reveals her own weakness and insecurity here, breaking down when Ana asks to leave while she is trying to tell Ana that she’s doing her best to fill her mother’s shoes, something Ana doesn’t really want.  Ana later finds her aunt napping, believing her dead.  She is proud of herself as she washes the glass and puts it away.

When Ana opens the fridge, the camera pans in on the raw chicken legs for the third and final time, and the message is clear: raise ravens, and they will scratch out your eyes.  Ana, the potential cunning murderer and death obsessive, is a product of her environment: a father who wanted sons, not daughters, and treated her mother horribly even as she lay dying, ignoring her pleas and dallying as he would.  The political message is echoed herein: a government that treats its citizens badly should not be surprised when those citizens reject its principles or rebel against them outright.

Ana, satisfied with what she believes was a well-orchestrated murder, goes to bed happily for once.  The next morning, she is surprised and gravely disappointed to find her aunt very much alive.  Her misery is not over, it seems.  Poor Ana.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (22)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (22)

The final scene is of the three girls walking down the streets of Madrid, headed to school as the camera slowly pulls back and pans across the city.  Ana’s favorite song plays over this scene, as the girls enter their school, and over the closing credits.

Carlos Saura - Cría cuervos (1975) (23)

Carlos Saura – Cría cuervos (1975) (23)

Though Ana appeared in three other films as a child, the final article in my Ana Torrent series will be on the last of these, El nido, directed by Jaime de Armiñán.