Through the eyes of a child: Carlos Saura’s ghostly portrayal of grief, bereavement and nationhood is a haunting testament to the ills of Spain’s troubled history
January, 1976. A population devastated by the despotism of Francisco Franco is slowly starting to process the horrors of dictatorship. Unbeknownst to its masses, the country is tacitly experiencing what might be Europe’s most profound political shift since the erection of the Berlin Wall, just sixteen years prior. The general is dead, authoritarianism is declining, an inevitable transition to democracy looms. What many dubbed Falangism is about to be eroded by new-fangled freedoms that most Spaniards have never even encountered, let alone experienced. Battered and bruised, a nation waits in limbo.
In the world of Spain’s floundering film industry, native writer/director Carlos Saura has just released his tenth feature, Cria Cuervos – an attempt to deconstruct these deep-seated traumas in the only way he knows how. A veteran of Spain’s censorious entertainment system, Saura has proven himself to be something of an old hand: a well-practised expert in the art of metaphor, refining his craft in a rigged game mediated by rigorous censorship principles.
At the time of filming, Saura had already cultivated something of a reputation within Spain’s academic and filmic circles, his alleged disrepute famously culminating in 1963 with a dismissal as professor at the prestigious Escuela Oficial de Cinematografia for unspecified ‘political reasons’. A certified nonconformist, Saura had resolutely established himself as a uniquely dissenting voice, shaping his critique of Spain’s dictatorial evils with encoded anti-government sentiments in representational films like his 1966 work The Hunt. Using his ingenuity to sidestep suppression by fascistic censors, Saura’s understanding of allegory was an indispensable tool in his filmic output. It would prove invaluable when illuminating the terrors of a Spain that was facing - for all intents and purposes - a cultural reckoning with its past transgressions.
‘Raise Ravens and they will pluck out your eyes.’
So goes the eerie Spanish proverb that forms both the title and underlying focus of Carlos Saura’s magnum opus: a deeply evocative portrait of a system that maimed and oppressed so many during its nearly forty year reign of supremacy. Ostensibly a tale of grief and its ensuing effects on children, Raise Ravens chronicles the story of Ana, a melancholy, wide-eyed little girl struggling to come to terms with the loss of her mother amidst a crumbling Francoist household. Skulking around a murky, labyrinth of winding corridors and hallways, Ana (brilliantly portrayed by a beguiling Ana Torrent in only her third on-screen performance) is our sole guiding force, her childlike intensity the vessel for scenarios far from innocuous: militaristic wakes, copious household chores, and the affectionate yet unnerving apparitions of her dead mother (Geraldine Chapin) being just some of the tribulations she must face. An excellent coming of age tale, the film blends insightful historical testament with sombre, introspective tones - a moving examination of the transience of time, national sovereignty and, perhaps most affectingly, the loss of childhood innocence.
Film scholar Sarah Wright once wrote that when it comes to Spanish cinema of this particular era, “the child’s gaze binds together resonances surrounding childhood and its corruption.” In Cria Cuervos, this idea is brilliantly exemplified. Though never explicitly critical of Franco’s collapsing regime, Saura’s decision to invert the camera’s perspective during the film's more significant moments remains his most scathing technique. The repeated use of Ana’s close-up is unmistakable in its implication: it explicitly highlights disillusionment every time we observe these horrors reflected in her naïve gaze. With every new revulsion Ana is forced to bear witness to, we are visually coerced into observing the consequences of that event first-hand. By reiterating this idea, it is as if Saura is actively seeking to shame Francoism for the way in which it has corrupted the virtue of even the most inoffensive, harmless youngster. The upshot of this idea is captivating, reinforced by a stunning turn from Torrent - her poise made even more astounding by the fact she was a mere nine years old when this film was made.
When it comes to the film’s more ghostly occurrences, Saura chooses to adopt another subversive approach, his outlook shaped by a desire to ground the audience in the harsh realities of his story. Indeed, the true ghost of this film is not paranormal in its presence, it is a longing, yearning sensation to revisit days gone by. In other words, Ana is not haunted by an authentic spirit: she is tethered to the sadnesses of her own distorted memory. This overarching idea lends Saura’s film an elegiac scope as Ana attempts to reconcile the relationship she might have had with her mother. Viewing this film through the lens of Saura’s symbolism, it is clear that the malevolence of Francoism ensured this would never become reality.
An avid photographer in his own right, Saura utilises the memory-capturing medium throughout Cuervos to help augment and sustain this effect, the potency of nostalgia becoming a tangible motif that informs the film’s multi-layered narrative beats with grace and gravitas. Set to the mournful melodies of Federico Mompou’s Canciόnes y Danza no. 6, the opening of Saura’s film is comprised entirely of photographs of Ana and her mother, foregrounding a wistful tone that imbues the film with a dense emotional core. Delicately handled, these themes ripple amongst the film's supporting players, personified most potently by Ana’s grandmother – an ailing woman who belongs to a bygone era, trapped inside her own mind, forever lamenting her glory days with the aid of a pictographic collage and an antiquated collection of vinyl records. Like Ana, she must physically reconstruct the past in order to make sense of it, retreating to her reverie of snapshots when the new world becomes too hard to bear. Saura consistently illustrates this sense of longing with precision and heart, each and every tableaux amounting to a stirring depiction of characters struggling to make peace with their own personal phantoms. Jeanette's poppy Euro hit Porque Te Vas proves something of a apt footnote to this idea, an upbeat earworm that a glum Ana sings along to in various sequences, its refrains of 'you'll forget me/because I'm leaving' an apt encapsulation of everything this film stands to represent.
With Cria Cuervos, Carlos Saura fashioned a groundbreakingly affecting work that would go on to influence a generation of Spanish filmmakers empowered by an array of new artistic liberties. Today, Ravens remains a sobering testament to an incredibly divisive era, an impassioned response to the controlling administration that vehemently dictated his authorial output throughout the 60s and early 70s.
Cria Cuervos is currently available on Blu-Ray, DVD, Kanopy, The Criterion Channel & Amazon Prime