Though Russell struggled for funding in his later years he did make one final memorable contribution to cinema history. In the little-seen portmanteau movie Trapped Ashes (2006) Russell’s segment ‘The Girl with the Golden Breasts’ is a typically outrageous effort about a woman whose cosmetic surgery leaves her with a pair of vampiric breasts.
Cria Cuervos is Saura’s finest film. As well as being a condemnation of fascism, it is a fascinating study of childhood and memory. Ana (Ana Torrent) witnesses her father dying, after he has just had sex with his mistress. Ana believes she killed her father by putting what she believes to be a deadly poison in his glass of milk. As she washes the glass Ana encounters her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) in the kitchen who affectionately chides her for still being awake so late.
It is only later that we realise this is wish-fulfilment on Ana’s part as her mother died a few years ago. These appearances are not unusual. Ana is a thoughtful child whose daydreams merge into reality and are as tangible and emotionally affecting as actual events. Geraldine Chaplin also plays the grown-up Ana, but interestingly only appears twenty minutes into the film. Normally when a filmmaker uses flashbacks they begin in the present and work back the way, but Saura wrong foots the audience by starting in the past. Using Chaplin in dual roles means there is a visual link between past and present and between mother and daughter.
The adult Ana first enters the film when her younger self is examining her poison, although it is really just a tin of bicarbonate soda.
“One day when my mother was cleaning, a tin fell out of a cupboard; she gave it to me and said, Ana.”
At the mention of her name the child turns and looks towards the camera as if her mother is directly addressing her at that moment, although the voice we are hearing is her as an adult recounting a memory. The camera then pans right as if drifting through time and allowing the child and the adult to occupy the same space.
Films that use an older protagonist looking back on their past often end with some form of self-discovery, or a moment of revelation. This is not the case with Cria Cuervos. Although Ana is aware her childhood has had a profound effect on her life, she still does not know why nor does she understand her behaviour. Did she really want to kill her father? She is not sure and will keep looking back for the answers she seeks. There is no closure, though anybody who has really grieved will tell you that there is never closure.
Saura managed to get Cria Cuervos past the censors despite being critical of Franco. Though the dictator died during production, his regime remained in power. Women in particular are shown to be traumatised in a society that expects them to be dutiful wives or just as dutiful mistresses. Ana’s grandmother is catatonic, unable to move or speak, her mother suffered from a deep depression her husband refused to acknowledge, while Ana describes her own childhood as being “interminable, sad, full of fear.”
Ana’s mother gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to marry her father. It was not a happy marriage, for as well as being a philanderer he had little interest in his wife’s feelings. In one memorable scene Ana and her siblings dress up in adult clothes and play at being grown-ups. They re-enact an argument they must have witnessed between their parents, with Ana as her mother and her older sister Irene as her father. The father makes no attempt to understand his wife’s anguish, but instead tries to placate her, before eventually blaming her for her depression.
The grown-up Ana is always seen in medium close-up against a spare background. It is never clear where she is, or what is going on in her life. It is as if she is trapped in limbo, unable to move on from the past. As a child she was wilful, imaginative and individualistic but now she seems defeated.
Ana Torrent also starred in Victor Erice’s wonderful The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), another tale of a child pondering the meaning of death, and she is just as astonishing in Cria Cuervos. Geraldine Chaplin brings an ethereal air to the lost mother, as well as rawness to the troubled, grown-up Ana. Chaplin remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful women ever to appear onscreen and deserves to have the kind of exalted reputation her Doctor Zhivago co-star Julie Christie enjoys.
Prague 1919. Insurance clerk Kafka (Jeremy Irons) investigates the disappearance of his friend and colleague Eduard Rabin. Eduard was sent by his employers to The Castle, an appointment he kept, but never returned from. Gabrielle, Eduard’s lover and a member of an anarchist group draws Kafka into the mystery by trying to recruit him into her organisation.
Although Kafka rejects her offer his interest in Eduard’s disappearance is piqued. Kafka discovers others have gone missing after being sent to The Castle, including a noted surgeon, Dr Murnau (Ian Holm). Now there are strange creatures wandering the streets of Prague at night and Kafka is being followed by the enigmatic Inspector Grubach (Armin Mueller-Stahl).
James Hawes referred to the presentation of Franz Kafka as a solitary withdrawn figure as the ‘Kafka Myth’ in his 2009 book Excavating Kafka. Kafka was apparently a sociable and charming figure until his health began to decline. However Dobbs uses a similar approach to David Cronenberg in his William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch (1991) in the same year combining parts of the author’s life with his fiction.
Kafka did work for an insurance company and wrote through the night. There are hints in the film of his troubled relationship with his father and his inability to commit to a relationship. There are allusions to his work most notably in the presence of The Castle, which in Kafka’s fiction is unknowable, and unreachable, but here reveals its secrets, although they are fairly banal compared to Kafka’s nightmares.
Steven Soderbergh won huge acclaim and the Palme ‘D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his debut movie Sex, Lies and Videotape. Following up such success with his second film was always going to be difficult and making a black and white semi-fictional biopic of Franz Kafka using techniques borrowed from German Expressionism is probably asking for a kicking. Kafka was initially released in the US in 1991, but it would be another three years before it briefly turned up in a handful of UK cinemas.
Although Kafka is regarded as a miserabilist his writing is often very funny. The masterful short story ‘The Rebuff’ is barely half a page long, but skewer’s the romantic longing of both sexes with a perfect aim. The preference for films about, or based on work by ‘serious’ writers, and few are taken as seriously as Kafka, is that they be serious.
Witness the austere and lifeless version of The Trial (David Hugh Jones 1993) with the perfectly cast Kyle MacLachlan trapped in a lousy production, just as surely as Josef K is trapped by the law. Lem Dobbs screenplay for Kafka has plenty of humour and Soderbergh has essentially placed the great novelist in a highbrow zombie film, like The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949) crossed with George Romero. Maybe this seemed incongruous to some critics, but it is closer to the spirit of Kafka’s work than they realise.
I’m a Scot so I thought I’d list my ten favourite films set in my homeland. They are arranged by date rather than by order of preference.
Holmes and Watson take the sleeper train to Inverness to solve a case involving a beautiful amnesiac, a sextuplet of missing circus midgets, and the Loch Ness Monster. Sinister locals warn them to stay away from the Loch. Such encounters are unlikely to happen to anybody visiting these days. Loch Ness is Scotland’s answer to Disneyland; though unlike Uncle Walt, our monster never existed. Just kidding Walt Disney’s Estate. A ruined masterpiece, United Artists cut great chunks out of the film. Miklos Rozca’s score is one of his best. Robert Stephens is perfect as Holmes; world-weary, and funny, he is wise enough to know love is best avoided whenever possible but still can’t help himself.
My Way Home (Dir. Bill Douglas 1978)
Douglas is one of Britain’s great lost film directors and this is his finest work. My Way Home is the final part in a trilogy based on Douglas’s own childhood. Jamie’s harsh upbringing was the focus of My Childhood and My Ain Folk. Now 17, he is used to feeling worthless, being hit, or being patronised by those higher up the social ladder. While carrying out his National Service abroad, Jamie is befriended and drawn out of his shell by an upper-class Englishman. Jamie’s realization that he can fulfill his artistic intentions is one of cinema’s most moving and hopeful coming-of-age stories.