Wednesday, February 01, 2006

El Sur / The South (Victor Erice, 1983)

El Sur, the second feature film of Victor Erice, following his delicate and beautiful debut, The Spirit of the Beehive, by a decade, and preceding his masterpiece, El Sol del Membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun a.k.a. The Dream of Light), by almost another decade, is an exquisitely realised, autumnal colour-bathed film about a child who constructs her own reality through little day-to-day discoveries, in post-Civil War Spain. The film adopts a first-person narrative (which it occasionally drifts away from), as the now-teenaged Estrella recounts her childhood days when she longed to connect with her father, and somewhat obsessively attempted to piece together his past.

The 'south' is something that is never seen (Estrella's parents moved to the north of the country due to differences in the political ideology of her father and grandfather), but always haunts the characters in some way or another - nostalgia, and perhaps regret for her father, and the isolation and subsequent emotional distance between Estrella from her father. There are several memorable sequences within the film's episodic structure: Estrella's first holy communion when her grandmother and her father's outspoken governess visit (the night-time chat between the latter and Estrella is the film's most overtly political moment - just the slightest acknowledgement of conflict between her father and grandfather hints at the broader separations that existed in post-Civil War times), Estrella's discovery of her father's secret obsession: a film star by the name Irene Ríos, whom Estrella's father goes to see in a local cinema screening the very Sternberg-like, Flor en la Sombre (actually shot by Erice himself), one of the few sequences in the film when the narrative is allowed to wander away from Estrella's point-of-view.

As always, Erice makes great use of natural lighting. Here, as in The Spirit of the Beehive, his characters are afloat in and isolated by yellows, browns, and reds. Indeed, if this film were a season (which it just about is, considering the shedding of perspective, the fluid passages of knowledge, and the ultimate regenerative act which stems from a death), it would be autumn.

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