Thursday Editor’s Pick: The South (1983)

by on April 2, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun April 8 at 9:00 and Thurs April 12 at 7:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]

Spanish Cinema of the Early Post-Franco Era (1975-83)” runs through April 13. In collaboration with film scholar Gerard Dapena and the Cultural Department of the Consulate General of Spain, Anthology presents an invaluable series of rare archival prints representing Spain’s cultural reawakening, including Erice’s unfinished companion to his 70s masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive. Many consider The South, also known as El Sur, superior.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

On the surface, despite the presence of a different fictional source (a story by Adelaida Garcia Morales) and scriptwriter (Jose Luis Lopez Linares), Victor Erice’s second feature seems to bring back some of the haunting obsessions of his first, the wonderful Spirit of the Beehive (1973): the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the magical spell exerted by movies over childhood, and a little girl’s preoccupation with her father and the past. But as English critic Tim Pulleine has observed, a reference to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in El sur points to an elaborate system of doubling and duplication that underlies the film’s structure as a whole, operating on the level of shots and sequences as well as themes (north and south, father and daughter, real and imaginary). Although this subtle spellbinder ends somewhat abruptly, reportedly because the film’s budget ran out, it seems to form a nearly perfect whole as it is: a brooding tale about an intense father-daughter relationship and the unknowable past, mysterious and resonant, with the poetic ambience of a story by Faulkner.



Time Out Film Guide:

The sublime Spirit of the Beehive was a daunting act to follow, but ten years on Erice produced a film to equal that earlier masterpiece. The setting is northern Spain in the late ’50s. We look again through the eyes of a child, ever watchful and all-seeing, winkling out the secrets of this world apart, where there is neither Good nor Evil; no heroes, no escape; and life is lived in spluttering bursts of poetic intensity. Erice creates his film as a canvas, conjuring painterly images of slow dissolves and shafts of light that match Caravaggio in their power to animate a scene of stillness, or freeze one of mad movement. The dramatic impact of gorgeous image and tantalising message is enormous.

Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times:

Ten years after his superb “Spirit of the Beehive” (1973), Victor Erice made “The South,” another masterwork dealing with the imagination of a sensitive, impressionable young girl (played at age 8 by Sonsoles Aranguren, at 15 by Iciar Bollan) and her maturing perception of the world and, in particular, of her father (Omero Antonutti, familiar for his appearances in the Taviani brothers’ films). Erice’s images are breathtaking–they could have been lit by Rembrandt. “The South” is a film of love and sorrow suffused with an appreciation of life’s beauty as well as its inevitable disappointments.



Dave Kehr for the Chicago Tribune:

Two films in 15 years is not a bad record when both of them are near-masterpieces. Erice seems to belong to that very small, select company of filmmakers-Jacques Tati, Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, perhaps a few others-who make movies only when they must. He appears to have no interest in developing a body of work, but only in creating the single, perfect thing. “El Sur” is exquisite.

The haunting force of “El Sur” lies in Erice`s decision to describe emotional atmospheres rather than events, to shy away from telling a story in favor of depicting its implications and consequences. The film accumulates a large reservoir of the unseen and unexplained-not just around “what happened“ to Estrella`s father in the south, but around the nature of Estrella`s relationship to her father, and how that relationship shifts as Estrella enters adolescence. Once she acquires admirers of her own, she rejects her father; his death, following a scene of betrayal that is both terrifying and necessary, is linked to her decision to become an adult. At the center of the mystery lies a movie-the Spanish B-picture, starring Irene Rios, which we watch through the father`s eyes in one of the film`s rare departures from the girl`s point of view.

For Erice, the cinema is supremely the site where the real and the imagined come together, where the past and the present co-exist. If he makes so few movies, it may be because, for him, moviemaking is a magical act, to be approached with respect and trepidation-a conjuring up of sleeping spirits.



Acquarello for Strictly Film School:

Based on the novel by Adelaida García Morales, El Sur is a deceptively lyrical and delicately realized, yet haunting portrait of maturation, estrangement, alienation, and dislocation. Victor Erice achieves an atmosphere that is both naturalistic and mystical by shooting in natural light to visually reinforce hues and gradations that, in turn, reflect Estrella’s gradual perceptional shift towards her father. Exploring similar themes that would also pervade Theo Angelopoulos’ subsequent 1986 film, The Beekeeper, Victor Erice draws an implicit correlation between geographic division and the legacy of civil war: the parallel rites of passage between the marriage of Spyros’ daughter in The Beekeeper and Estrella’s first holy communion in El Sur; the profoundly isolated Spyros’ apicultural migration to the south that represents a similar lure of an ephemeral (or unrequited) paradise lost to the melancholic and withdrawn Agustín (as well as both filmmakers’ paradoxical characterization of the south as a destination that represents vitality and figurative death); the complex role of the cinema as a place of escape and also a contemplative medium for introspection and personal assessment. Erice further integrally incorporates cinema into the development of the multilayered narrative through a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (through a preview poster at the CineArcadia) that uncoincidentally bears a similar plot of a young woman’s demystification of her idolized, charismatic uncle with whom she believes she shares a profound connection. However, unlike the intrigue of the seminal Hitchcock film, the mystery of El Sur unravels with the imperceptible weight of a tossed skein of red yarn – exposing, not a barbarous crime, but the unendurable realization of being ordinary and unremarkably human.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The first shot, the girl’s darkened room leisurely coming to life at the break of dawn (creeping sunlight, barking dog, some commotion faintly heard beyond the frame), is a wondrous display of Vermeer gradations that establishes the ensuing work as a memory-projection “directed” by the young protagonist as “a very intense image that I had in reality invented.” Spain in the 1950s is a house divided, not just along Civil War lines but also between the family’s northern rural manor and the mythical south of Seville, movies, and other El Dorados. Estrella the celestial beholder, as a child (Sonsoles Aranguren) and a teenager (Icíar Bollaín), trying to make sense of the chiaroscuro world around her: “I grew up more or less like everyone else, getting used to being alone and not thinking too much about happiness.” The father (Omero Antonutti) is a fellow withdrawn dreamer, adored and disturbed and lost in a reverie of his own, enthralled by the starlet (Aurore Clément) who once flickered on the screen at the local theater. Victor Erice envisioned a lengthier venture and got the Stroheim treatment, the half that remains is nevertheless exquisitely lucid and tender about childhood’s shifting emotional spaces. As in Spirit of the Beehive, cinema sculpts identity — to follow that film’s Frankenstein monster of half-obscured, emergent perceptions, there is a melancholy web of dislocated doubles and paradises lost, glowing with enchantment yet aware of the need to question that enchantment. Erice understands the role the senses play in Proustian memory, a whiff of spearmint, the tap of a cane on a wooden floor, the movement of a paso doble are all woven together for a sense of life lived and recalled. A whispering, truly calligraphic camera.



Adrian Danks for Senses of Cinema:

In The South we watch a group of mostly disconnected individuals try to deal with the legacy of a receding past; the Civil War and the divisions it has forged within families and between generations. Although this film is a somewhat truncated version of Erice’s original vision—he conceived of a final section actually set and filmed in the ’south’—its refusal to move outside the isolated northern community which the family inhabits, in a kind of exile, leaves open the potentiality for the processes of imagination and creative subjectivity that define Erice’s work (as well as his characters). In a scene reminiscent of the Stereoscope sequence in Malick’s Badlands (1973), Estrella, the young girl who is the ‘focus’ of the story, uses the material things that surround her to create an understanding and sense of the somewhat inconceivable world beyond her immediate experience. Because her parents rarely discuss the past, she has to extrapolate from the old-fashioned hand-coloured photographs she finds in a family album, or imagine her father’s past lover from a lobby card she picks up at the local cinema (as in The Spirit of the Beehive, cinema is used as a means to spark imagination and to create identity). The worlds of Erice’s films emerge as a collection of disconnected but connected signs—aural and visual—that enable the characters to come into being.


It is the look and sound of Erice’s films that is often their most remarkable and telling characteristic. His work is full of ambient, often isolated, perhaps not even adequately sourced, sounds. It is often these sounds which most clearly haunt and disturb the characters. These sounds are also an indication of a world outside of the explicitly framed—this is a cinema full of frames-within-frames, doorways, windows, metaphors of entrapment—and often boxed-in environments we are shown (gunshots, barking dogs, train whistles, vehicles shifting gear). Sound is often figured as a site of the imagination and the unknown, a trigger for processes of creativity, memory and identity formation. For example, early in The South the narrator tells of her first memory (assumedly ‘re’-constructed at a later time from a story told by her parents), in which her father mysteriously ‘designates’ her gender while she is still in the womb—the first of a series of uncanny connections that bind father and daughter together in this family romance. Thus, it is not just sounds but words that are central to the make up of the characters.


Geoff Andrew interviews Erice for the BFI:

It’s a quite wonderful film, I think, and is totally coherent, yet it’s a film that was never finished. You weren’t allowed to shoot everything that you wanted to, and it’s shorter than it would have been as part of the story isn’t there. Was that a very painful experience for you?

Yes, it was very painful for the drama [of the film] but, of course, for film-makers this is quite a common occurrence. The film was interrupted for financial reasons. On the other hand, in terms of production it went very well, it was a happy time. Even in the state it is in, the film had a lot of commercial success in Spain, and especially from the critics. It should have been one hour longer, although many critics and spectators have applauded the fact that the south – which would be the south of the country – is never actually seen in the film. My taste is a little more common: I wanted to show it, especially as I was born in the north but lived many years of my life in the south. I felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to have the north and the south coming together in the film. Naturally this was a metaphor for the divisions that became apparent in the Civil War and, similarly, the divisions in a person who can’t assimilate or join two parts of his own being.

The figure of the father in The South is a man divided between two loves: his romantic passion and his mundane life with his wife. It’s about a man who always wants to go to the south but never manages to go. The train is always going past the station but he never manages to get on. He returns home like a clandestine person and he dies. And in a sense he leaves a mandate because, when he is about to die, he leaves under the pillow of his daughter the symbol of the communion, the thing that tied them together in their youth. This is the last thing that he does in his life so he is there, working like an impulse to provoke the daughter to make this trip that he was never able to make – and she does do what he could never do.

In the part that was never filmed, this girl does reach the south in Andalusia, where her father was born and lived his own childhood, so it completed the story of her father’s death. In this way she was able to reconcile herself with the image of her father. This was the original project of the film. The film as it is now is still under the weight of the pain and, of course, the visit to the south was the redemption and she could grow up and become an adult. I can’t say it would have been a happy film but there would have been a new energy and vitality because, in every story, to understand the history of one’s parents is so important for every human being.


Miguel Marais promises ample reward, even in an unfinished state, also for Senses of Cinema:

Once you know that what you’re going to see, or have just watched, is only half the movie Erice wanted to make, and despite the fact that there are some things which never get explained or fully developed, you should forget this knowledge and enjoy what there is to see and hear, which is plenty. Regardless of the understandable frustration Erice still feels about the issue, while shrinking from others descriptions of the film as a masterpiece, El sur is still substantively a great film like Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965). If you haven’t read either the original screenplay or the tale, you might never imagine that the film is not a fully mastered and completed work. In fact, despite its unfinished state, El sur is for me – and others – one of the greatest films ever made in Spain, and perhaps Erice’s most refined and mature work as a director.

El sur does not tell a particularly extraordinary tale. But the tale it does tell is rendered in quite original and moving ways, and in tones much more subtle and deep than its literary source. This does not mean it is a contrived, sophisticated, obscure or intellectual movie, even if it avoids sentimental trappings or “easy-to-make” political readings. From the opening sequence – in my recollection the most impressive since Dreyer’s Ordet (1964) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956) – one gathers that everything in this picture has been thought through and carried out with extreme care and precision; that there can be no loose ends, only cut threads owing to the film being only half of what Erice intended at over three hours.



Marais continues:

If the South announced in the film’s title remains a felt, mythical presence, almost dreamt but never reached or seen (only glimpsed on postcards while accompanied by the chords of Enrique Granados’ piano music on the soundtrack), it nevertheless remains a key reference, a significant motif in the film’s narrative. Although uncompleted, El sur is a much more accomplished, richer, deeper, complex and moving picture than El espíritu de la colmena. It marks a decisive step forward in Erice’s progression as a filmmaker. El sur is much more dense and allows us to get much nearer to several of the characters; its silences are not of the same kind as those that are so significant in El espíritu de la colmena. There is more interaction, and much more feeling and confrontation too, in El sur. In contrast, most adults in El espíritu de la colmena, even the parents – who never exchange a word – are kept mainly at a distance, in a different, separate world from that inhabited by the two sisters who are so alone that they are ready to see ghosts. The relationships in El sur are more real and painful.
El sur reveals Erice’s increasing ability to cut directly to the essentials, without rejecting, in the process, spontaneity or humour, or any of those picturesque traits that can give life to even the most briefly shown characters. The key to his way of looking at things and showing them is rhythm. Things are shown to us at a very quiet and deliberate pace; not slow – there are not dead or void spots – but at a pace that simply allows us to look attentively at the players’ faces and read into them, so as to guess their deepest feelings. The almost whispered, confidential tonality of Erice’s narration, which avoids explanations as well as set-pieces, only heightens our concentration on every word, every gesture, every gaze: few films have more elegantly invited us to think about what one is looking at in every shot.


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