Is your father a hero, a crook, a ghost or – perhaps more unexpectedly – just an ordinary human being with virtues and fallacies ahoy? Estrella (played at the age of eight by Sonsoles Aranguren and at the age of 15 by Icíar Bollaín) has a strange obsession with her elusive and mysterious father Agustín (Omero Antonutti). She is always keen to investigate his secret past and unrequited dalliances with more fervour than her own relations. She hardly remembers her mother, and she is very dismissive of her romance with a young male nicknamed Carioco.
Spanish filmmaker Almodóvar selected El Sur as one of his favourite Spanish films ever, and so it is now in cinemas again. Perhaps not coincidentally, Almodóvar’s latest movie Julieta (click here in order to read our review) deals with the emotions of a mother abandoned by her daughter without any explanation. El Sur opens with the departure of the father Agustín, also without any forewarning or justification, leaving Estrella desperately searching for so many answers.
El Sur has a common feature with one of the most aesthetically and politically significant Spanish films of all times, Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos, made just seven years earlier (in 1976). In both films the protagonist is a young girl with a very rich imagination, and both film were made not long after the end of the Francoist regime in Spain (Franco died in 1975). The difference is that the girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) imagines death (including her father’s) in Cría Cuervos, while Estrella fantasises mostly about her father’s love life, including an affair with a film star. Both movies are representative of a time of fast political changes and uncertainty in Spain, where reimagining the world through the eyes of a child looked like a plausible solution to both filmmakers and tormented Spaniards. Puerile imagination provides the poetical licence needed in order to overcome the polarisation the country experienced since the Civil War.
In El Sur, the garments are unvariably dark, the mood is somber, conversations are muffled, much like the country under Franco’s oppressive dictatorship. The photography is dark like a Rembrandt or El Greco painting, the camerawork is slow and subtle, a little like Tarkovsky. Fact, imagination and allegories blend in together in a gentle and gloomy reconstruction of a child’s (and then a teenager’s) imagination.
The director Victor Erice originally planned to make a three-hour movie, with the second half taking place in the south of Spain, where Estrella moves in order to investigate the secrets of her father. However, this never came to fruition, and only the 90 minutes taking place in the north were completed. This is clearly noticeable in the movie, which at times feels a little loose and incomplete. The second half probably had the potential to turn it into an immaculate masterpiece.
El Sur has now been rereleased, following a season of Almodóvar films at the BFI South Bank. It is showing in cinemas across big cities in the UK from Friday, September 16th.
You can also view the film trailer below: