November 12, 2016
El Sur (1983)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Victor Erice
Stars: Sonsoles Aranguren, Icíar Bollaín, Omero Antonutti

What it's about. Set in Spain during the 1950s. Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) is a child who adores her soft-spoken and melancholy father Augustín (Omero Antonutti). Her strict but caring mother is Julia (Lola Cardona). The family is middle-class, getting by on Augustín's abilities as a clairvoyant.

Augustín goes missing at unexpected times, and Estrella plays detective. She learns that her father appears obsessed with someone named Irene Ríos, who turns out to be a film actress that he knew years earlier, before he was imprisoned by Franco for undetermined Republican activities.

From a brief family visit by Milagros (Rafaela Aparicio), the friendly and now elderly former nanny of Augustín, Estrella realizes that when Augustín was younger, he lived in the South of Spain, instead of the cooler North, and had a blow-out with his well-to-do Nationalist father.

How others will see it. In Spain, Victor Erice is noted for directing three (and only three) features, each of which was lavished with awards at world film festivals. The Spirit of the Beehive was his first (and still best known) effort. It was followed a decade later by El Sur, and nearly ten years later came The Quince Tree Sun, another critical success.

Most who watch the movies treasure them, but their commercial success is limited. El Sur, for example, has only 2500 user votes at U.S. voters number only 334, though the film occasionally plays on the Turner Classic Movies cable staple. The glacial pace and lack of action violates Directing 101 in America, and subtitles further impede the distribution.

But cinema is not all about money. Art films have a smaller audience than those that the multiplex. Most are nothing special, and good films are scarce. But a film does not need a big budget, or name actors, to be good. All it really takes is a story, a professional cinematographer, and a skilled director.

How I felt about it. Erice's first feature starred two girls, and El Sur also has two girls (playing the same part at different ages) in the lead. All were cast as amateurs, although Ana Torrent and Icíar Bollaín have gone on to many leading roles in Spanish cinema. Thus Erice is a star-maker, able to find naturalistic and emotive young actors. The critical praise lavished on them belongs mostly to the director, who provides them with compelling situations.

The production of El Sur supposedly ran out of money before it was finished, which explains why it ends unexpectedly. Classic Hollywood director Howard Hawks didn't believe in killing off his leads, but many other directors have closed a film with an unnecessary death. There's one here as well: Estrella's dad dies, not because he has a good reason to commit suicide, but because the story requires closure that would bring poignancy to Estrella's covert investigation for the truth about her father.

Suppose that Agustín had instead simply left his family for the South, and his former lover. Estrella would be left with disappointment instead of heartbreak, and the latter earns greater sympathy from audiences.

Augustín is a mysterious figure, who spends much time alone. He appears to have exceptional superstitious skills. Like father, like daughter, who also prefers the quiet of her own company, and tries to deduce the riddle of her father without taking the easy path of interrogating her parents. Estrella loves her father but he has difficulty directly relating to anyone, and appears to be merely living out his life after his failed romance and imprisonment.