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.