Monday, 21 November 2016

The South

The best film I saw this summer was Victor Erice's 1983 masterpiece, The South (El Sur), which belatedly received a UK theatrical release in September as part of a favourites list chosen for the BFI by Pedro Almodovar. I confidently use the word "masterpiece" because not only is the film very good, it is one of only 3 full-length features that Erice has made over a long career, the others being The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la Colmena) in 1973 and The Quince Tree Sun (El Sol del Membrillo) in 1992. Less is evidently more. Erice's approach certainly suggests the work of a master painter, not just in the visual debt owed to Caravaggio and Vermeer, but in his patience and attention to detail. The Quince Tree Sun, a documentary about the artist Antonio Lopez Garcia, is partly a meditation on his own craft, but Erice is more than a painterly director, obsessed with the play of light and colour. He is also more than the reverential cinephile suggested by his reference to other films, such as James Whale's Frankenstein and Alfred Hitchcock's The Shadow of a Doubt.

For me, Erice is first and foremost a literary film-maker, inspired to render the shifting intellectual moods captured in a novel, particularly one that plots the moral and aesthetic growth of a young mind - what used to be known as a bildungsroman. In this sense, The South can be thought of as a portrait of the artist as a young girl. I chose those words because the author with whom Erice appears to have a particular affinity is James Joyce, another whose oeuvre was limited to a handful of masterpieces. If The Spirit of the Beehive has parallels with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - a dawning childhood awareness of adult hypocrisy leading to aesthetic rebellion and emotional exile - The South has clear thematic links to Ulysses, though it also freely borrows from the rest of Joyce's work. While Erice adds postmodern irony in his concern with truth and fiction (not least through the motifs of film and writing), this is at heart a modernist tale that contrasts an emerging consciousness with the inability to fully comprehend the motivations of others.

The consciousness belongs to Estrella, a child growing up in 1950s Spain, whose middle-class parents have reluctantly moved from Seville to a chilly, unnamed town in the North. This is the era when the Franco regime was at its most secure: forgiven its Fascism as an anti-communist bulwark, and yet to be economically and culturally marginalised by the rest of Western Europe in the 1960s. The film starts with a word repeatedly shouted in the night, a scene that will turn out to be the end of the film and which echoes the circularity and verbal emphasis ("yes!") of Joyce's Ulysses. The narrated story (a tale within a tale) opens with Estrella's father, Agustin, holding a divining pendulum over her mother, Julia's, swollen belly, predicting the sex of the unborn child and giving her a name. As Estrella's voiceover admits, "It is a very intense image that in fact I made up": an origin tale presented as a tableau of the Holy Family. This points to Estrella's determination to situate herself in the narrative, to understand her own life, but also to understand her enigmatic father, whose death by suicide will be revealed as both the start and end-point of the story.

We do not know if Agustin was exiled to the North because of Civil War politics, an unhappy love affair or a simple falling out with his own father. All are alluded to. Why does a man of science - her father is a doctor at the town's hospital - rely on the occult power of a pendulum? What exactly is being handed over, or let go, when Agustin leaves it under Estrella's pillow (on the same bed on which she imagined her naming) on the night of his death? We learn that Estrella's mother was a teacher in the South, but no longer teaches in the North, so perhaps it was she who was exiled for political reasons and Agustin who was obliged to follow. Estrella sees no mystery in her mother and even when she discovers, through an old letter, that her father had a previous love for whom he still pines, she shows more interest in the off-stage Laura, an actress who adopted the stage name Irene Rios, than she does in her mother's attitude to her father. Despite this, it is Julia, along with a number of other female characters, who gradually educates Estrella in the ways of the human heart.

El Sur is based on the novella of the same name by Adelaida Garcia Morales, who was Erice's then partner. The novella features many of the neo-gothic tropes that provided a rich seam for Spanish film-makers exploring the legacy of Franco's dictatorship: an isolated house, death, a mystery, a journey, family retainers etc. Famous examples include Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth , Alejandro Amenebar's The Others and much of the work of Pedro Almodovar (Volver, The Skin I Live In, Julieta etc). Where the film achieves a depth greater than the original story is in the amplification provided by a classical mythos accessed through Joyce. Agustin is another version of Odysseus, but one who ultimately fails to return from exile because he is finally rejected by a Penelope who demands ownership of her own life and fate (in political terms, this is a post-Franco Spain rejecting the emotional weight of the Civil War). In this reading Seville is Ithaca, Laura is Penelope and Julia is Calypso.

The role of Estrella is perhaps that of the young Nausicaa. In Homer's telling, she is both a symbol of unrequited love and motherhood - her saving of Odysseus prompts her to say, "Never forget me, for I gave you life", which parallels the way that Estrella's tale brings Agustin back to life through posthumous narrative, and also echoes the creation of life in the Frankenstein theme of The Spirit of the Beehive. If The South is also the story of the narrator's life, of an emerging consciousness, it is one that doesn't reach full maturity (the film was meant to have a second part, where Estrella finally visits the South, but funding ran out), however I think that much of its power comes from the fact that illusions are never fully shattered or truths wholly revealed. The beauty of the work comes in the quivering moments of realisation and doubt, not in the satisfactory resolution of a narrative arc. If gothic tales, like cinema thrillers, cleave to the melodramatic seriality of crisis and resolution, what distinguishes Erice's work is a classical sense of simultaneity. As Joyce put it, "There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present".

Agustin's slow, final crisis is triggered by seeing Irene Rios in a fictional Spanish film, Flor en la Sombra (Flower in the Shade), a black and white thriller in which Rios's character is killed by a jealous lover. This prompts Agustin to write to Laura, which in turn leads to Laura's response in which she both finally rejects Agustin and her life as Irene Rios. We cannot be sure that this actually happens, as what we see is Estrella looking covertly in through a café window as her father reads a letter, while Laura is heard as a voiceover. Could this simply be the romantic projection of an adolescent girl? The cinema that showed the fictional Spanish b-movie now carries lobby-cards for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. For Spanish cinema, Hitchcock was as heavy a presence as his contemporary Franco, reflecting both his prominence as a "supra-political" (and therefore uncensored) artist and the resonance of his themes of unreliability and deceit. It's also worth noting in passing that James Joyce was, for a short while, the manager of the first dedicated cinema in Dublin.

The South has always stood for potential in European thought - the direction of the warming sun and the exotica of empire - and the notion of potential is central to marginal societies ambivalent about tradition and struggling to achieve modernity, such as Ireland or Spain in the early 20th century. Were it not for the language spoken on screen, you could easily mistake the wet, green hills and the dark town by the reed-fringed river for Athlone or Galway. The air of conservative solemnity in Franco's Spain, which has an obvious analogue in the Ireland of the half-Spanish de Valera, is occasionally punctuated by ceremonies of hope. Estrella's first communion is followed by a family party at which she dances with her father for the first time, to an Andalusian pasodoble that appears to evoke memories for Agustin, and which marks her transition from child to girl. Years later, as they meet for lunch in a hotel restaurant, the two will overhear the same song playing at a wedding party in an adjoining room. This will prove to be Estrella's last meeting with her father, and the point at which she stops being a girl and becomes a woman.

For Agustin, the song provokes a sense of irretrievable history and one's own insignificance in the thoughts of others. This reminds us of Gabriel Conroy in The Dead, the final story in Joyce's Dubliners, who experiences a similar epiphany as his wife tells him how a song sung at a dinner party recalled to her a youthful sweetheart who she believes died for love, singing outside her window in the cold and wet when already ill. Where the two stories diverge is that Gabriel overcomes his dismay at his ignorance of his wife and comes to realise that we are all fated to become nothing more than memories in the minds of others. In contrast, Agustin seems unable to reconcile himself to this humanist thought, which leads to his suicide. In this sense, the narrative of Estrella is an attempt to preserve Agustin's memory more fully than he was able to preserve his own memory of the South or of Laura. The South, which preserves the youthful Estrella through her narrative, is both Erice's sardonic meditation on the unreliability of memory and an affirmation of the ability of film to capture time.

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