Cría Cuervos (1976) – film directed by Carlos Saura *BEWARE! some spoilers!*

The first group scheduled event for Spanish Language Lit Month is to post on the film Cría Cuervos*.  This is an off-kilter and beautiful film starring an adolescent Ana Torrent.  The title translates as Raise Ravens, which refers to a Spanish proverb – “Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.” (Raise ravens, and they’ll pluck out your eyes).  Set in Madrid, during the final days of Franco’s Spain, it tells the story of one dysfunctional family from the perspective of the middle daughter, Ana.

The film opens with Ana finding her father’s dead body in bed, as his lover flees the house.  Her mother has only recently died of cancer – after suffering both physically from the disease and emotionally due to her husband’s infidelities.  Ana blames her father, played by Héctor Alterio, for her mother’s pain and has mixed a powder she believes is poison into his milk.  Now orphaned, an aunt & grandmother arrive to look after Ana & her two sisters.  The earthy housekeeper, who acted as nurse to Ana’s mother, completes the household.

Cría Cuervos is billed as a “psychological drama”.  In the 70’s that must mean minimal dialogue; an indordinate amount of time spent focused on the Torrent’s huge, haunting eyes and abrupt switches mid-scene between reality and Ana’s memories.  Snarkiness aside, those are kinda’ the things I loved about it.  The main plot line is deceptively simple. The girls have no real concept of what death is.  But Saura brilliantly shows how they have absorbed and processed the events taking place around them.  In one scene they dress up and amidst much giggling, re-enact a scene they must have witnessed of their parents fighting.  In another Ana offers to assist her disabled grandmother die by giving her some of the same “poison” she gave to her father.   In a final scene the eldest daughter sums up the feelings of uncertainty, fear and confusion all three are experiencing when she tells Ana of a nightmare from the previous night as casually as if it had no relationship to her real life.

More complicated is what the director is attempting to say about Franco’s regime and its legacy to the people of Spain.  Ana’s father, we learn, fought beside the Nazis in Germany.  There is a sense of decaying luxury within the walls of the family’s Madrid home (where almost all the scenes take place).  The swimming pool is empty and neglected.  We’re told repeatedly that the house is in disarray.  There is Ana’s casual approach to death, which is partly due to her 9-year-old lack of understanding but also serves as a commentary on the atmosphere in which she was raised.  She feels no remorse or guilt, despite believing she killed her father.  And her older self, who appears sporadically throughout the film to attempt to explain the actions of the younger Ana, no longer seems to have a connection to or understanding of the psyche of the child she once was.  What will become of this post-Franco generation, is the question Carlos Saura seems to be posing, who have grown up in strange times with only their parents as examples?

Visually, Cría Cuervos is beautiful – and the remastered Criterion Collection edition I watched was vibrant and crisp.  The film’s color palette and the slight awkwardness to the actors’ performances  reminded me of a Wes Anderson film.  As did the song “¿Por qué te vas?” (Why are you leaving?) which was played repeatedly throughout.  One review I read pointed out that in the film Ana’s mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin (who also played the adult Ana), speaks Spanish with an English accent – as does the singer.  The adult Ana speaks with a “pure” Spanish accent.  The reviewer put forward that the reason Ana repeatedly plays the record is because the singer reminds her of her mother’s voice.  Which, to my mind, makes perfect sense. Cría Cuervos is full of small, subtle touches like that.

My final review? I enjoyed the film much more than I expected to (I’m not really a fan of 70’s cinema).  So much so that I’ve already added El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) – an earlier Saura/Torrent collaboration) to my Netflix queue.  It was, overall, a wonderful way to begin Spanish Language Lit Month.

*I’ve posted my review early because I’m a dope who’s never been good at reading directions.  You should definitely check out Winstonsdad’s Blog and Caravana de recuerdos this weekend for links to everyone else’s brilliant (and on time) opinions of the film.

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Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (narrated by Elizabeth Klett)

My most recent audiobook download from Iambik.com is Rebecca Pawel’s novel Death of a Nationalist.  Set in 1939, in the early days of Franco’s Spain, it’s a murder mystery that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of history.

…The Spanish Civil War, often  considered a practice run for WWII, has only recently ended.  The short-lived Republic is no more.  The Nationalists, backed by Nazi Germany and Italy, are the winners.  The remains of the Republican army – a mixed bag of Communists, Socialists and Anarchists backed by the Soviet Union & Mexico, (and more quietly by England & the U.S.) – are in hiding.  Once discovered they’ll be imprisoned… if they are lucky; “taken for a walk” if they are not.

All in all, this is not a good time in the history of Spain.  People are starving in the streets of Madrid and the black market thrives. The population is still divided over the recent war.  Death of a Nationalist opens with the murder of a member of the Guardia Civil, the often corrupt civil police force tasked with restoring order and normalcy to the city.  The murdered man’s best friend and fellow Guardia, a Sargeant Carlos Tejada, is determined to find the killer.  What follows is an investigation fraught with wrong turns, mistaken beliefs, moral ambiguity and a number of red herrings.  All of which plays out against a vividly rendered historical backdrop.

So well rendered that at the end of the audiobook I was looking for the name of the translator.  Guess what?  There isn’t one.  Rebecca Pawel was born in New York City.  She’s still alive and still writing books.  Death of a Nationalist (published in 2003) is the first in a series featuring Sargeant Carlos Tejada Alonso y León.  A series that now consists of four books.

My point is:  Death of a Nationalist has all the strength and authenticity of a novel written in the 1930’s.  The writing style, historical details and psychology of the narrative reminded me so much of Nada by Carmen Laforet that I completely mistook Pawel for a contemporary. There is an immediacy to the events and opinions, an absence of hindsight, that I thought would be hard to create so long after the fact.

Death of a Nationalist throws you head first into the plot.  A young schoolgirl witnesses the murder of the Guardia, and that random act creates a domino effect that changes the course of her life and the lives of her family.  Pawel keeps a large cast of characters at her disposal.  To her credit I never felt lost or confused.  Everyone fit neatly into place without the plot being formulaic.  The main protagonist, Tejada, is something of an anti-hero.  He’s a fascist, not your typical knight-in-shining armor.  His beliefs make him unpredictable.  That unpredictability only increases the suspense.

As for the audio:  Iambik has come a long way in a short time.  More indie publishers are on board, more audiobooks are available – their library is constantly growing.  Now, when you click on the book title it takes you to a page where you can listen to a segment and decide whether or not you like the narrator’s voice.  A feature which I love!  Elizabeth Klett, who narrates Death of a Nationalist, does a great job. Her character voices are nuanced, each is imbued with subtle individuality.  I’ll definitely be listening to more of her work.  And I’ll definitely be looking for the next book in this series.  Which, sadly, is not yet available in audiobook.

Death of a Nationalist is available in traditional book form through Soho Crime.
ISBN:  978 1 56947 344 3

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