Film by Carlos Saura, Spain, 1976
Cria Cuervos is a dark, engrossing film by Spanish film maker Carlos Saura. I watched it for film studies last semester and absolutely loved it. This was an essay I wrote about it. I think it is interesting to know the historical and political context of the film, but even if I had not known them, this wonderful, disturbing film would still have moved me. This is a must see!
Saura’s work as a film maker is inextricably entwined within the social and political climate in which he lived and grew up, and within whose constraints he was forced to work.
In this essay, I will look at the historical influences on film under Franco, the auterist movement Saura was part of that tried to move towards social realism, whether through New Wave cinema, or allegory, as Saura did, and at how Cria Cuervos reflects Saura’s obsession with his country’s dark history and stifled present through allegory.
Francoism brought about the concept of Hispanidad, a kind of German Fascist inspired idea of the ideal of the Catholic, Hispanic race as an ideal, and the creation of an imaginary utopian past for the nation. With government control of media, propaganda was spread to promulgate this fiction.
The film industry was torn apart by the Francoist regime, with Republican sympathizers forced to flee the country, the positions were taken by Francoist sympathizers, and those willing to do what it took to make their living as a film maker or actor, no matter what the moral compromises. During the dictatorship, ‘the country’s literary, and, above all, dramatic heritage played a leading role in imposing certain norms, always of an old-fashioned kind’. The only kind of cinema that existed made audiences feel ‘alienated, if not actually hostile’. (Borau, 1999: xviii- xix)
Film censorship had grown more and more powerful since 1937, but with no real written guidelines, their decisions were ‘arbitrary and always infallible, leaving no recourse to the film maker to question a decision.’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 17) Film makers were inevitably forced to censor their own films to try and ensure they passed the censors. The films of this era, while not explicitly to do with the war, clearly reflected the values and historical view present in Francoist ideology. Most post war film consisted of ‘folkloric comedies and romantic genre films’
The 1941 film, Raza was actually written by Franco himself under a pen name and sought to film what the Francoist dictatorship saw as a void in the area of a film about ‘heroic Spanish ideals’. (D’Lugo, 1991: 17) This film brought about the constant in François propaganda of using the family unit as a ‘microcosm of Spain itself’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 18) and to portray the Fascist ideals and struggle, becoming the structural and idealistic guide for films of the era. Saura would later turn this family metaphor very cleverly on its head in his own films, such as Cria.
Saura describes Spanish film makers as ‘self-taught’, sheltered from the good films of the rest of the word, only hearing of them from word of mouth from the lucky friends who got out of the country. They had to create their own visual language to escape the censors.
At the time Saura attended it; Spanish film school still greatly limited what its students were allowed to see, as it was government controlled.
‘For me therefore, Neorealism came as a shock. The Italian Cultural Institute brought a “Week of Italian Neorealist Cinema”… and they invited members of the film School to the proceedings. It was a fantastic experience. I will never be able to thank them enough for that… And it was then that we started to formulate the problem for ourselves… a cinema within the terms of Spanish underdevelopment, that is to say, with more of a basis in realism and a cinema of a very modest production scale.’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 15)
In 1951, Ruiz-Gimenz’s rise to minister of education began a ‘liberalization of the Spanish university system’. The university magazines founded under this new, slightly gentler educational regime would form some of the first dissenting voices. In 1955, Spain’s separation from Europe ended when it was allowed into the United Nations, although still harshly repressing the growing resistance. (D’Lugo, 1991: 20)
The film magazine Ojetivo, which ran only from may 1953 to Spring 1955 before being shut down by the government had, despite its short run time, a significant impact, offering the first avenue for an alternative version of film and cultural criticism. This, also, was strongly influenced by New Wave Italian cinema and cinema journal Cinema Nuevo. And especially praising films with social realism. They also founded the Salamanca conversations, which were to prove as lasting legacy of their work. These ‘Conversations on National Cinema’ ‘where Spanish film makers from diverse backgrounds came together to reject the Francoist cinema and demand a new kind of cinema that could address contemporary social problems in Spain and achieve international recognition abroad.’ (Kinder, 1993: 3) would reinforce the liberal spirit among young film makers of the era. Though created by liberals, the conference was not biased, featuring film makers and critics of all political ideals. Unfortunately, the most immediate output of this conference was to identify the radicals to the government and make them targets.
“At Salamanca I was a really a spectator, although totally fascinated by something which had never crossed my mind before: the formulation of Spanish cinema in political terms; the possibility of making films rooted in reality; the return of realism” (Braso, 1974: 34 in D’Lugo, 1991: 22)
‘Saura’s films pursued a narrative style that moved away from social realism to be consciously allegorical, including autobiographical elements and making increasing references to both his own films and those of others’. (Bentley, 2008: 21) he created ‘A new language that would help characterize the New Spanish Cinema’ Spanish cinema in general. (Kinder, 1993:12)
In a film industry marred by censorship, Saura’s turn to allegory was an ingenious way to evade censorship. ‘It was felt that Saura’s work had become so hermetic and difficult to understand, that it would in any case only appeal to minority groups who were already negative to the regime.’ (D’Lugo, 1991: 114-5)
However, Saura was not merely doing this to evade censorship, but also for artistic reasons, he ‘tried to signal the break from Bardem and Berlanga and the move toward a second phase by claiming the exiled Bũnel and the French new wave as his models instead of neorealism.’ (Kinder, 1993: 7)
Saura’s metaphor ‘is a poetic figure constructed so that the vehicle of the metaphor does not replace the tenor, but in which both are present simultaneously.’ he does not let this ‘spoil the illusion of reality’. (Monegal, 1998: 207)
Saura's films were both a personal and wider cultural narrative. ‘Work[ing] within the heritage of Franco without ever claiming they can transcend or escape from it.’ (Conley, 1998: xviii) They spoke of the malaise of a culturally stagnant and controlled country. The film makers of whom Saura was a part saw themselves as the children of Franco, “emotionally and politically stunted children who were no longer young; who, because of the imposed role as ‘silent witness’ to the tragic war that had divided country, family, and self, had never been innocent; and who, because of the oppressive domination of the previous generation, were obsessed with the past and might never be ready to take responsibility for changing the future.” (Kinder, 1983: 57)
Saura’s own fragmented childhood memories of the war allowed him entrance to the state of a child in his narrative, writing partly autobiographically. Scenes of horror that he saw as a child stayed with him vividly, marking both his childhood and adulthood.
Saura’s films ‘focus on the family, divided and dysfunctional, as a metaphor for Spanish society, confined to a big house with or without a garden, representing ‘private past experience and the collective past of Spain [..] a search that is at once personal and collective’ (Kovacs, 1981:46 in Bentley, 2008: 214). In the setting, the empty pool could be said to symbolise the empty pool of national memory. The particularly poignant scene where the speechless paralysed grandmother wants Ana to show her the photos of her life. it is not clear whether Ana really know the stories or is re-imagining them, and this seems to reference the re-imagination of Spanish history and the notion of having lost any sense of what is real or true anymore.
In Cria Cuervos, “a moving tale of a sensitive child’s loss of innocence; but also a brilliant allegory of Spaniards trying to “reason” their own emotional liberation from captivity in the prison house of François ideology.” (D’Lugo, 1991: 131) We see not just a little girl dealing with the death if her parents but a nation dealing with the loss of a tyrannical father figure and their lack of direction or knowledge where to go.
‘The film [Cria] presents three generations of women, each identified by her own musical theme, as the victims of hypocritical patriarchal values and of the military… since Ana’s father is an army officer… women are often representative of the silent victims of the regime.’ (Bentley, 2008: 216)
Ana’s role is allegorical, but also painfully obvious of Saura’s remembrances of his shattered childhood. Ana is so open and easy to identify with, an intelligent, imaginative child whose life has been rocked by death. She is clearly representative of a ‘child of Franco’. In a scene where Ana and her sisters, while playing families, imitate the squabbles and problems of the generation before them, it seems to imply an unguided generation that will repeat the mistakes of the past.
The pervasive nature of soldiers (all high ranking) in the film is clearly indicative of the fascist nature of the state. Every single man in this film is a soldier. And all are in uniform in almost every scene. The scene where the girls’ father is in his coffin surrounded by the soldiers with a camera angle slanted up towards them makes us feel dominated and afraid, both like a child, and from a position of no power and weakness. Children are unable to control their lives, as were the people under Franco.
The funeral clearly intimates the end of Franco, but it is not with a feeling of relief, but with an overall pervasive air of dread that this scene is filmed, which is significant. The old woman, pushed into the shadows may represent the marginal role of women in the perfect world of the Francoist dictatorship, and also the old life before the dictatorship happened, pushed into the shadows, and changed. The little girl moves into the shadows to be with the grandmother, she does not have a way to go and will be lost herself.
Her aunt’s ‘authoritarian’ regime follows on after the death of her father, showing that such things are not easily put in the past and one dictator or regime often rises to take the place of the old one, however, the people, represented as children, cannot take care of themselves, and need someone to guide them.
The use of an ‘elliptical narrative’ form in Saura’s films such as Cria create a feeling of both the cyclical nature of time and the inescapable nature of fate ‘The mnemonic traces of a personality immersed in painful events from the past and to the iterative traces of collective history and dominant ideology.’ (Kinder, 1993: 133)
Saura leaves the ending of Cria very open for, although we see the future grown up Ana talking about her childhood- we do not glimpse her future, nor that of the country. Clearly he is reflecting an uncertainty for the future of Spain. She reflects on the sadness of her childhood, but not on her current life. Is she happy, what is the state of the nation? We are not even afforded a glimpse of what this future looks like; she is filmed wearing a plain top in front of a featureless grey wall. She could even be in a prison or government building. In this way, the future always has an ominous presence, but is never truly revealed, reflecting the complete unknown of the future after Franco. The empty wall and setting has been said imply ‘an empty future’ (Bentley, 2008: 216)
Ana’s mother also gave up much for her family and philandering husband. She had been a talented piano player and given it up when she was married, and maybe she could have been great. Saura's own mother was a piano player who gave it up when she had a family and it seems his own personal musings on the subject have influenced his outlook.
Saura’s films have been described as ‘indirect’ and ‘highly interiorized’. (Kinder, 1993: 67) By using allegory Saura manages to make his movie more poignant and personal and far more revealing than with an obvious narrative. Although it has been agued that the ‘veiled allusion or clever innuendo… ultimately eluded even the grasp of audiences.’ (Borau, 1999: xix) However, even if this is so, his films are rich and deep and a huge contribution to Spanish culture, and help today in an understanding of life after the Spanish Civil War and the heightened political climate of the time that pervaded all aspects of life.
It is clear that Saura’s experiences of fascism under Franco profoundly shaped the films that he made. Not only is life under and after Franco the topic of most of his films, but his entire technique and filmic styles, have also been altered by the constraints under which he made films, only to become more ingenious.
Therefore it can be said that the historical and political conditions under which a film are made supremely influence both film and those who make film. It would be interesting to see what Saura’s films would have been like had a been born into a different country, and whether, had he not been forced to work under, admittedly frustrating and difficult conditions, his work would have been half so ingenious and touching.
Bentley, B. 2008, A companion to Spanish Cinema, Woodbridge ; Rochester, NY : Tamesis.
Conley, T. 1998, ‘Foreword: A Land Bred on Movies’ in Talens, J., Zunzunegui, S. (ed.), Modes of representation in Spanish cinema, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press. pp xi-xxvi
D’Lugo, M. 1991, The films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.
Borau, J. 1991, ‘Prologue: The Long Mach of the Spanish Cinema Towards Itself’ in Evans, P. (ed.), Spanish Cinema, the Auterist Tradition, Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press. pp xvii-xxii
Higginbotham, Virginia, 1988, Spanish Film under Franco, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kinder, M. 1983, The Children of Franco in The New Spanish Cinema, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 8, no. 2 pp 57-76
Kinder, M. 1993, Blood Cinema: the Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain, Berkeley : University of California Press.
Monegal, A. 1998 ‘Images of War: Hunting the Metaphor’ in Talens, J., Zunzunegui, S. (ed.), Modes of representation in Spanish cinema, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press. pp 203-215