Aka EL SUR
(Victor Erice, 1983)
El Sur may well be the single most beautiful Film of the 1980s. Erice's use of natural light and, more particularly, of darkness, is spectacular, and worthy of comparison with Caravaggio and Vermeer. The opening scene is a perfect example. The titles appear over a black screen, then lightness enters the frame almost imperceptibly, until we can make out a window in the corner. Slowly light illuminates a room; a bed, some ornately detailed wallpaper. Someone is sleeping in the bed, and as the scene progresses - the narrative handled almost entirely through offscreen dialogue, telling us that a man has gone missing, his wife frantically ringing around in search of him - we watch that someone wake and rise.
She is Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren), and she narrates the story as an older woman, reflecting on a pivotal part of her life, when she lived in Northern Spain with her parents, before her fathers suicide. The majority of the film involves her investigation of her memories of her father, and his mysterious past in pre-Civil War Southern Spain.
Erice has his favourite themes - childhood, myth, memory - and this story allows him to tackle all of them. But he tends towards the elliptical and enigmatic, necessitating some effort on the part of the audience. That effect is exaggerated here by the flashback structure, and only the voiceover narration clarifies some of the more obscure plot points. But the themes are always prominent as Estrella seeks to understand her own idea of her father as an almost mythic figure with magical abilities (he divines water and studies hypnosis) and the connection of that with her mythologisation of the South itself.
That makes El Sur sound dry, but it never is. Erice has far too poetic and nuanced a sensibility, and this film is far richer in humanity than The Spirit of the Beehive, his superb debut. Here Estrella's life is complicated by her family, her ruminations and fantasies lent an edge by the realities and implications of Spanish National (and her fathers) history. Scene by scene this is an extraordinary piece of cinema, beautifully shot and toned, and filled with lovely acting.
The circumstances of its production - only half of Erice's script was shot, after a producer pulled financing - suggest it should feel far less complete and coherent than it actually does, and though it ends without any real narrative closure, that ending is moving and in keeping with the lyrical mysteries characterising the rest of the film.
Not only the most beautiful film of the 80s, then, but one of the very best films from that decade.