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Bishops Castle Film Society

El Sur - 7th Feb 2018

Victor Erice, Spain, 1983, 95m

Victor Erice’s 1983 film El Sur is haunted by the ghost of its unmade other half: intended to run three hours, its producer stopped production midway through and Erice was left to spin his gold from an unfinished story. As such, its family dramas and tragedies – persecution, internal exile, disappearance – almost all occur elsewhere, in the past, or in the never-seen south of Spain. Halved or whole, however, it is almost perfect.
Like Erice’s debut, The Spirit Of The Beehive, El Sur is a child’s-eye view of a world that the protagonist, Estrella, is not yet equipped to fully understand. The movie opens in 1957 when she is 15, on the night her father Agustín disappears, but it mostly unfolds in 1950 when she is eight. The unnamed, isolated part of northern Spain where she lives, a place between town and country, is nicknamed “no man’s land” by her brooding father, a doctor who never talks about his past or his own father back home in the south, where Agustín hasn’t returned since the civil war.
On the roof of their isolated house is a weather vane, first seen covered in winter icicles, compounding a looming sense that life is elsewhere, along with history, the future, other women, even explanations, as it turns out. Whole areas and characters exist off-screen: one (Aurore Clément) is only seen in a movie she appears in at the cinema; a suitor of Estrella is only heard on the phone; Generalissimo Franco, the author of this family’s sorrows, is mentioned once. And the producer’s decision to halt filming before the crew’s move to southern locations means that we never even see El Sur either.
Which leaves us with a young girl trying to figure out her parents (her mother has also faced postwar “reprisals”), finding certain clues via old letters and servants’ gossip about the family’s poisoned past. Erice favours dark interiors in which stasis acquires dynamism (a Caravaggio effect his work is noted for), and loves deeply centred, symmetrical compositions. When he delivers a stylistic flourish, it’s worth the wait: a father-daughter dance after Estrella’s first communion is a track out from the main table to the dance itself (to a tune ironically called In The World), followed by a track back to Estrella’s empty chair, a sublime camera move that mimics the bellows-like movement of the accordion leading the dance. And the dissolve that ages Estrella from eight to 15 is a 10-second triumph of clarity.


This is a simple and moving cinema language, whose serenity belies the rich complexity of its visual construction and its mastery of the themes of childhood, memory and loss. A masterpiece, haunted by itself.
[John Patterson The Guardian 12 September 2016]
Recalling her youth in northern Spain in the 1950s and her relationship with her beloved father, Estrella realises how little she knew about him. Raised in the south, he’d had his secrets… Delicate, nuanced, mysterious, Erice’s film reveals his abiding fascination with memory and missed opportunities, longing and loss, the passing of time and the links between private dreams and political realities.
The performances – like the meticulously lit compositions and the evocative soundtrack – are superb throughout; Omero Antonutti is especially charismatic as Agustín, while Sonsoles Aranguren and Icíar Bollaín shine, respectively, as the young and teenaged Estella. Exquisitely beautiful, profoundly moving.
Andrew, programmer-at-large, BFI]



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