Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos (1976) is a film that probably has more resonance for those with a solid background in Spanish history, especially the Franco regime, but that’s not a requirement for appreciating this stylish blend of fantasy and reality about remembering childhood. That aspect of the film is haunting, without taking into account the political implications of the story. In fact, star Geraldine Chaplin (who was married to Saura) has said that the film wasn’t intended to be political, though this is difficult to believe based on the on-screen evidence and when the film was made.
Without going too much into the political background, Cría Cuervos is set at the very end of Franco’s Spain, making it impossible not to read a certain import into the fact that the men in the film are in the military government and are shown as corrupt and immoral. Even the picture of one of them as a war hero is slanted, since it’s worked into the dialogue that he was fighting alongside the Nazis when he received his wound. They’re also presented as brazen womanizers and as men who tend to force their wives into lives of complete subjugation.
Similarly, the fact that the film is presented through the penetrating and accusatory eyes of young Ana (Ana Torrent) tends to make it hard not to read her take on what she sees as the youth of Spain seeing through the world of their elders. The film opens with Ana being just outside the bedroom door when her father (Héctor Alterio) dies during sex with his mistress (Amelia Garontes), who just happens to also be the wife of his best friend (German Cobos). Ana’s placid examination of the corpse and her subsequent—seemingly incomprehensible—actions of carefully cleaning a glass she finds in his bedroom are curiously detached. Part of the reason for this becomes clear when it’s revealed that Ana believes she has poisoned her father. That it later transpires that she didn’t can be interpreted as an interesting comment on Spanish youth—that they may think they killed off the old regime, but in reality it died of its own corruption and the simple passage of time.
The approach of the film, however, is to present childhood as a grim—and possibly distorted—memory, with the idea that one generation finds itself a carry-over from the last. To this end, Geraldine Chaplin plays both Ana’s mother and Ana’s adult self. The film is essentially told from the adult Ana’s point of view—her memory of her childhood. What’s remarkable about this is the way in which Saura moves in and out of memory, fantasy and what might be called casual surrealism. The time frame is constantly shifting, and characters who might be ghosts—or simply memories—are apt to show up at any time.
Much that happens happens more than once. Dialogues are repeated in both the same and in different contexts. (It’s hard not to suspect that Saura had seen Roman Polanski’s What? (1973), which uses the same approach to playful effect.) Images are also repeated, as is a catchy, inane pop song that takes on its own meaning as an expression of rebellion. The result of all this is to create an almost hypnotic meditation on childhood and the way in which we remember it. A truly striking work of great originality.