The past is a difficult beast, because it is a beast that doesn’t stand still, but mutates and takes on different meanings over time and as one grows older. Such acute knowledge of what was compared to what is, coupled with an inability to move forward, leads to either stasis or a foiled Gatsby-esque attempt to regain it. Proust wrote that “The only true paradise is a paradise we have lost” – as our distorted memories are capable of changing what was a complex time into something simple and beautiful yet ultimately false. Rationality tells us it was something quite different, but when one once was in love and was loved, then all rationality can be trusted upon to succumb under the incredible weight of nostalgia.
El Sur is a story about the past, and the hold it can have on us. It tells the story of a man (Omero Antonutti) who cannot forget the past, and is told through the perspective of his daughter Estrella (played at eight by Consoles Aranguren and fifteen by Icíar Bollaín). Giving it this perspective, as her idealistic view of her father is tarnished the more she learns about his past, makes this is a highly nuanced story, all the more effective for being told all in one solitary flashback. This mostly linear approach only helps to solidify what it is he has lost, giving a novelistic impression of the passage of time. Being rereleased in UK cinemas on the 16th of September, it would do well as a Blu-Ray release also, inviting multiple viewings to garner out its subtler meanings.
Spanish director Víctor Erice almost perfectly encapsulated the wonder and strangeness of growing up in The Spirit of The Beehive. Released some nine years later, El Sur offers a more melancholy lament for how the end of childhood is the end of innocence, and expertly captures that age when the ideal image of one’s parents is slowly dissolved by reality creeping in. It is told in a haunting style, with crisp delineations of darkness and light soundtracked by Ravel and Schubert and the old tango standard “La Cumparsita”. Like with Erice’s The Spirit Of The Beehive, the film contains a criticism of the Franco regime, yet here, released post-Franco, it does not have to be quite so shrouded in symbolism. The South is not just a place of personal importance for her father, but of course a space where the bloodiest battles of the civil war took place. Estrella, trying to piece together her father’s past, can understand to some extent his personal struggle, but as a fifteen year old girl living in fascist Spain in the 50s she is yet to understand the wider significance of what occurred. This invites the reading of the film as allegory, yet it is feels too personal for any simple historical reductions. Instead, it remains rather an elusive rendering of childhood and the imperfections of memory, adding up to a tender portrait of what it means to have loved and to have lost.
El Sur is unfinished, an extra hour and a half supposed to take place in the south of Spain halted by producer Elias Querejeta. Instead it ends on an ambiguous note, with Estrella’s future still unwritten. Will she learn the lessons her father never did?
Dir: Victor Erice
Scr: Victor Erice, Adelaida García Morales (short story)
Cast: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Icíar Bollaín, Lola Cardona, Rafaela Aparicio
Prd: Elías Querejeta
DOP: José Luis Alcaine
Music: Enric Granados
Runtime: 95 minutes
El Sur is opening at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester and selected cinemas UK-wide from 16 September 2016