The Girl as Unrequited Lover: Ana Torrent, Pt. 3 (El Nido)

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 TearsEl 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?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (1)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (1)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (2)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (2)

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?

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (3)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (3)

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.  The priest 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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (4)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (4)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (5)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (5)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (6)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (6)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (7)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (7)

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 would suggest this accounts for at least some of Goyita’s high intelligence and maturity.  This theory is, of course, only moderately accepted in the larger mental health community.  Nevertheless, Goyita is a good model for the theory.  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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (8)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (8)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (9)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (9)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (10)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (10)

Later, 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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (11)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (11)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (12)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (12)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (13)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (13)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (14)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (14)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (15)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (15)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (16)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (16)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (17)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (17)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (18)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (18)

Later, 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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (19)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (19)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (20)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (20)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (21)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (21)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (22)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (22)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (23)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (23)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (24)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (24)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (25)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (25)

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.

Jaime de Armiñán - El Nido (1980) (26)

Jaime de Armiñán – El Nido (1980) (26)

 

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.

The Girl as Political Model: Ana Torrent, Pt. 1 (The Spirit of the Beehive)

In 1973, young Spanish filmmaker Víctor Erice created his debut film: El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive).  It is widely considered one of the masterpieces of Spanish cinema, an opinion I happen to share.  The film has been widely influential, and its imprint can be seen in dozens of other films, among them Carlos Taboada’s Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies), Gabriele Salvatores’s Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared) and, perhaps most notably, Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth).  Aside from its masterful direction, the key to its success was its young star, little Ana Torrent, who had never acted before and was not from a family of actors.

The film operates on two levels: The first is a story of a little girl growing up and learning to face her fears, a classic coming-of-age story.  The second is a political allegory, a veiled critique of the Franco regime which, unlike its Nazi and Fascist counterparts in Germany and Italy respectively, still had a grip on Spain at the time this was filmed.

The dominant party under Franco was the Falange, and we immediately get a sense of its presence when we see the Falange’s logo on the side of one of the buildings in the town of Hoyuelos, where the story is set.  A truck has arrived in this sleepy Spanish village, a mobile cinema.  For these rural children in 1940 Spain, a movie is something of a novelty.  When a Spanish-dubbed version of the classic Universal picture Frankenstein is screened in the town hall, nearly the entire village—or at least its younger segment—shows up to watch it, including sisters Ana and Isabel (Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería).  At first they blend in with the rest of the children, like bees in a hive, but eventually we get a closeup of their rapt, apprehensive faces.

The relationship between Ana and Isabel is a more complicated one than it appears on the surface.  Many have interpreted the two of them as the opposing factions in the Spanish Civil War that only just ended in the period in which the film is set, and so will we.  Isabel, the older and more dominant sister, represents the nationalists under Franco, who won the war and now rules Spain, and Ana represents the leftists, who did not.  There is still some fighting as the Francoists clean up the countryside, but basically the war is over.

Before the film itself plays, the film-goers watch a government-approved addendum that is clearly intended to be political propaganda, wherein democracy is compared to the monster: a frightening man-made creation that subverts the natural order of things.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (1)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (1)

While the children of Hoyuelos are being enthralled by Frankenstein, the girls’ father, a beekeeper named Fernando, is working with his bees.  The beehive is a symbol that will appear throughout the film, most prominently in the form of the honeycombed windows of the manor house that Fernando and his family live in.  Fernando’s beekeeping costume also makes him resemble a medieval monk, and thus a stand-in for God looking down on Spain from above: although he attends to it faithfully, he disapproves of it, criticizing it as tightly-controlled but essentially mindless and soulless.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (2)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (2)

Meanwhile, the children’s mother, Teresa, writes a letter to her absent lover, whom we may assume is a soldier of some kind.  In her letter she explains how the war has torn the family apart emotionally.  Indeed, the family is never seen together as a whole until somewhere near the end, when they are breakfasting.  We see a recurrence of the beehive theme here, in the manor house’s windows, which we will see again and again.  Teresa writes by the golden light streaming through one of these honeycombed windows.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (3)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (3)

When Teresa visits the train station to mail off her letter, she walks through the smoke and steam issuing from the train, echoing the smoke Fernando uses to calm his bees into submission. Smoke or steam is another oft recurring nod to the beehive in this film. And the train has long been a symbol of industry and progress, playing well into the ideology of the newly appointed authoritarian governments of Europe, who each utilized the unity and pride of workers as propaganda to bring them into the fold. Trains, of course, were also used to carry soldiers and prisoners of war to their destination.  This train will be seen again.  In the partial breakdown of society after the war, it is one of the few connections the isolated village has to the world outside.

As Fernando is reading the newspaper, the sound of the film in the tiny village floats into the house, distracting him, and he steps out onto the balcony to get a better listen. Here we see those yellow honeycombed windows again, only this time Fernando is on the other side of them.  He is, in his own way, just another bee, another cog in the Francoist wheel.

Then we’re back to the theater again.  This leads into the scene where Frankenstein’s monster encounters the little girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), who offers him a flower.  But the monster winds up killing the girl accidentally by tossing her into the water, believing she will float like the flower the girl threw into the water. This becomes the lynchpin scene for Ana, the beginning of her obsession with the monster.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (4)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (4)

Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most complex in literature.  In the novel—a literary classic written by a 17-year-old Mary Shelley—the creature is a tortured being who can not only speak but has the soul of a poet and can wax eloquent about his own suffering.  He wants only to find his place in the world and people who will care about him, and when his creator refuses to help him to that end, and his own searches reveal only people who fear and despise him because of his monstrous size and hideous appearance, it is only then that he becomes a murderer.  By the end he has lost his faith in both humanity and himself.  But the movie monster was somewhat different.  Reduced to guttural grunts and growls, he is not the creature of great intelligence and sensitivity we meet in the novel.  He is slow, both physically and mentally, although he means well and his intentions are often misunderstood.  The best literary analogue is probably Lennie Small from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (5)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (5)

Ana is terrified and spellbound. As a little girl herself, this scene really hits home for her. Torrent’s large expressive eyes help to sell what she is feeling as she watches the scene play out.  It should be noted that Ana Torrent was not given much preparation for this role and in fact was not even familiar with the script.  Erice wanted the children to behave as real children, and he fed them—or at least Torrent—a line at a time.  Thus, Ana’s confusion and terror in the film are often real.  Today we would probably consider this exploitative, but few can deny the power of Torrent’s performance.  Still, her experiences on the set of The Spirit of the Beehive were likely troubling to her father, who wanted to prevent her from acting after this film.  Luckily for her this did not wind up being the case, but we shall discuss her other films another time.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (6)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (6)

Although the scene in Frankenstein where the monster tosses the girl into the water was actually shot, it was excised from early cuts of the film because it was considered too violent.  It is rather tame by today’s standards, but at the time the censors thought it too frightening for audiences to see.  This small edit actually becomes important in The Spirit of the Beehive, because it leads to Ana’s confusion about what really happened to Maria.  First Ana sees Maria befriending the monster, and the next thing Ana knows, the girl is inexplicably dead.  The older, more experienced Isabel, on the other hand, knows exactly what happened.  Politically, you could say that Isabel has bought into the propaganda entirely.  Ana is a different story.  For her it is not initially clear what connection the monster has to the dead child, and in that sense there is still hope for Ana to see the monster in a more sympathetic light.  But she is uncertain.  Hence, her obsession. The monster will haunt Ana in a way it never can Isabel, who has already made up her mind about it. This is exacerbated by the fact that, although Isabel agrees to answer Ana’s question after Frankenstein is over, she never really does.

Later, when the girls are in bed, Ana asks again, but the jaded Isabel, who knows something about how movies are made, simply explains that it was all fake. Ana is, of course, unsatisfied with this answer because it does not address the issue that’s
troubling her. Indeed, Isabel only adds insult to injury by playing on Ana’s gullibility, telling her younger sister that the monster now resides in their own village. She adds that the monster is essentially a disembodied spirit who only comes out at night and can sometimes take corporeal form, which really enflames Ana’s imagination. Isabel even tells Ana how to summon the monster.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (7)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (7)

Fernando continues to wax philosophical about the bees, seeing only futility and soulless toil in their frenzied activity, ironically failing to see how he and his wife (and by extension, Francoist Spain) have become exactly like the bees.  His wife (who is significantly younger than her husband), by contrast, does get a sense of it, even if she can’t quite identify it for what it is, as she points out in one of her letters to her lover.  In that sense, husband and wife echo Isabel and Ana. Isabel, like her father, is a conformist at heart, whereas Ana yearns for something more, something she does not fully understand but sees represented in the form of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. She is the dreamer. We get a sense that Isabel will survive just fine under Franco, but we worry about Ana, who stands in for a future democratic Spain. She is open and questioning, and therefore vulnerable.  At any rate, while Teresa finds her solace and distraction in writing letters, Fernando finds his in his work and in his routines like smoking cigarettes and taking his tea (both of which produce smoke of sorts, thereby tying back into the beehive symbolism).

In the Catholic girls’ school the sisters attend, they are faced with putting together their own sort of Frankenstein’s monster in the form of Don José, a puzzle of the human body where certain organs can be added and removed, used as a teaching tool by their instructor.   In a deeply symbolic scene, Ana is asked by the teacher to place the final missing piece: the eyes. With her dreamer’s soul, Ana offers the much-needed vision that her Francoist peers lack. This will foreshadow a later event in the film, when Ana has an honest to goodness hallucinatory vision.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (8)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (8)

Later that day, on their way home from school, the girls encounter an abandoned building with a well near it, which Isabel tells Ana is the home of the monster. Note how Ana stands on the mound here while Isabel is in the trench. Isabel runs to the well and then goes into the building while Ana, too afraid to approach, watches her. When Isabel emerges, the girls run home again. Later Ana returns on her own, repeating the steps of her sister: looking in the well first (even going a step further by shouting and dropping a stone into it) and then entering the building.

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (9)

Then, we see the children mushroom hunting with their father.  Fernando explains to them that he always obeyed his grandfather (representing tradition), who instructed him on what to do if he encountered a mushroom he didn’t know: don’t pick it. The irony here is that, if no one had ever tried any mushrooms at all, they would never have discovered that some were good to eat.  When they encounter a mushroom Fernando knows is poisonous, he tells his daughters that, although this particular mushroom is young and smells pleasant now, when it begins to rot its true nature will be revealed.  Ana seems uncertain about this.

Look quickly for the honeycomb pattern in the seat of the horse-drawn carriage Fernando climbs into in the next scene.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (10)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (10)

The girls indulge in a little horseplay before school, jumping on their beds and pillow fighting (a scene somewhat echoed in the opening sequence of a later film, Du är inte klok, Madicken, which came out in 1979), and we hear Isabel repeat the universal refrain of children everywhere who are caught misbehaving: “She started it!”  Then, Ana plays in the soapy water her father shaved in earlier that morning, much to both girls’ amusement.  These scenes serve to remind the viewer that these are real fresh-and-blood children and not just walking, talking metaphors.  Scenes such as these help ground the film.

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (11)

I haven’t much to say about this next scene, other than that I found it a particularly touching one.  Ana blows on the bees inside a wire mesh cage, perhaps attempting to agitate or stir them up, interrupting their usual pattern of behavior.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (12)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (12)

Next we see Isabel (whom, you’ll recall, represents the Francoists) displaying her tendency for cruelty when she throttles the family cat.  She is rewarded for her actions with a painful scratch on her finger.  Her own blood fascinates her, and she uses it to paint her lips darker red and admires herself in the mirror afterward, thus tying violence to sexuality.  Violence and sex . . . we are firmly in the realm of adulthood here, and thus we are getting a glimpse of the woman Isabel will likely become.

Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (13)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (13)

The violence against the family pet leads Isabel to another idea, and here is where she turns her tendency for nastiness against her sister.  Isabel fakes a violent attack against her person, pretending to be dead, which she knows Ana will interpret as an attack by Frankenstein’s monster.  She even breaks a potted plant and leaves the balcony windows open for effect.  The prank goes on far longer than it should, as Isabel continues to milk it for all its worth.

Finally, when Ana runs off to seek help and, not finding anyone, returns to the scene of the crime, she finds Isabel gone.  But alas, someone sneaks up behind her and grabs her, frightening Ana near out of her wits. It is of course Isabel, dressed in a heavy coat and men’s gloves. On one level, you have to admire Isabel—she is an artist of sorts, and this was her pièce de résistance.  Ana, who is already haunted by the idea of Frankenstein’s monster, will likely never forget this prank at her expense.  It’s no wonder she takes it to heart then.

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (14)

Isabel, lit by the sun as it streams through the honeycombed windows, gloats over her accomplishment.  She looks utterly devious here.  I must say too that, while Ana Torrent certainly commands the screen, Isabel Tellería holds her own with Ana well enough.  Isabel is the perfect compliment to Ana’s generous and trusting nature, and there is just something inherently playful and puckish (and perhaps a tad sinister) about Tellería’s face.

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (15)

This incident divides Ana and her sister, leaving Ana without anyone she can really trust and look up to.  Her parents love her, but they are emotionally distant, preoccupied with their own lives.  Isabel was Ana’s only real friend and confidante, but that trust is likely forever shattered now.  When Ana sees Isabel playing with other neighborhood girls afterward, running and jumping through the fire, she does not feel compelled to join in, merely to watch from afar.  One thing Ana Torrent has said about this scene is that she was awed by Isabel leaping through the fire, and that, while they were only a year apart in age, she always felt like her costar was much older than she.  These are the magnifications and exaggerations of childhood, when everything is fresh and new and slightly overwhelming.  It serves as a reminder that we should never underestimate a young child’s tendency to see themselves as small and inadequate in the face of a huge world ruled by much bigger people.

Later that evening, Ana sneaks out of the house by herself, not bothering to wake Isabel, her former partner-in-crime.  She finds the courtyard and surrounding woods spooky and foreign.  Ana’s loneliness and sense of betrayal are almost palpable here.  When she returns to her bed the next morning, waking Isabel, and her sister asks where she’s been, Ana refuses to answer.

    Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (16)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (16)

When Ana finds a wounded resistance fighter (arrived by train) hiding out in the abandoned building she and Isabel like to play in, she of course invests him with her own mythology.  This is where the spirit of the monster is said to lurk, so this must be a physical manifestation of the monster.  She offers him an apple, mimicking the scene in Frankenstein when Maria gives the monster a flower.  She continues to bring him clothing and food (including, notably, a jar of honey) and to help him in small ways like tying the shoe on his wounded foot.  In return, he entertains her with magic tricks.  These little acts of kindness by Ana help to restore some of her faith in mankind.  Of course, it is short-lived, as the fighter is caught and killed, and Fernando soon realizes what has been happening when his coat is found on the corpse. Torrent says she was particularly moved by this scene when she first saw the film herself, and felt quite proud of tying the soldier’s shoe!

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (17)

Ana returns to the building and finds the fighter missing, with copious amounts of his blood left behind.  When her father confronts her here, she runs away into the woods.  The death of her new friend feels like the ultimate betrayal to Ana, and she cannot bear it.  As luck would have it, she soon encounters one of the poisonous mushrooms her father warned her against picking.  It is unclear here whether she attempts suicide by consuming some of the poisonous mushroom her father told her to avoid, or whether the poisoning is accidental, but whatever the case, she begins to hallucinate, seeing the monster’s face in her own reflection in the nearby river.  Meanwhile, her mother burns a letter she intended to send to her absent lover, and we soon realize that her lover and the resistance fighter were the same person.  Now that he’s dead, it makes no sense to continue sending the letters.

A little later she has a face-to-face encounter with the monster, shivering in fright at the prospect of a repeat of the scene in Frankenstein.  In this case, because of the mushroom poisoning, the monster may very well represent the prospect of death here.  Ana passes out from fright from the encounter.  Torrent claims this scene had to be filmed numerous times because whenever the monster appeared, she would run away in tears, even though she was aware that it was a man in a costume.  Fear can sometimes overrule what we know to be true, and that probably goes double for small children.  After all, this was her first experience with film—she had no way to be certain if it was an entirely safe experience or if Erice (who was coaching her through the script) was telling the complete truth.

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (18)

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (19)

A posse of townspeople, including her father, who have been searching for her all night find her sleeping near the wall of a demolished structure.  She continues to hallucinate even at home, but a doctor assures her mother that she will get over it.  His words are not terribly reassuring to Teresa, or to the viewer, for, although the hallucinations will surely end, the emotional scars are likely to persist for the rest of her life.

Later Isabel slips into the bedroom where Ana is resting.  The older girl seems to be genuinely remorseful for her actions which led to this state of events.  This is reinforced when she sees shadows moving on the wall and covers her head, offering her a chance to empathize with Ana.  It also contrasts with what happens with Ana at the end.

 Víctor Erice - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (20)

Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (20)

The honeycombed windows look quite different in the moonlight. Seeing something from a different perspective can change one’s interpretation of it.  Ana has undergone a profound transformation, a revelation brought on by her psychedelic experience.  In the final shot of the film, Ana literally and metaphorically turns her back on the night—she no longer fears what she doesn’t understand, which means she might well become an active voice for change in the future, whereas Isabel, even though she should know better, is still frightened by shadows moving on the wall.

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Víctor Erice – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (21)