In The Spirit of the Beehive, director Víctor Erice crafted a film that looked at the world of Spain shortly after the Civil War through the eyes of a young girl. Through those eyes, he shows the shattering of innocence and the escapism found in a fantastical world beyond comprehension. In El Sur, Erice somewhat returns to this approach as he follows a young girl named Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren). Through her, El Sur shows her world in which her mysterious father Agustin (Omero Antonutti) has a tendency to disappear in the night, has an apparent obsession with an actress named Irene Rios, never speaks to his family in the south, and often fights with his wife Julia (Lola Cardona). Yet, there is an unspoken bond between Agustin and Estrella, one that can only be captured by images as opposed to words. Erice brings this to life in El Sur, capturing somewhat of a mythological element while also diving into the unique bond between this father and daughter.
In two small shots, Erice shows Estrella looking at a film poster for Shadow of a Doubt by Alfred Hitchcock and later shows her reading the book Wuthering Heights. In watching El Sur, these two creative works really position themselves as major influences on the film. Though Agustin is not a murderer as with the uncle in Shadow of a Doubt and they are not lovers as with the characters in Wuthering Heights, there are clear similarities. From Shadow of a Doubt, we see a familial relationship in which a young girl looks up to a male figure in her life with great admiration and love, only to slowly realize just how little she truly knows about him and the life he leads when she is not around. He is not necessarily a bad man, but he is certainly a disconnected one who never really opens up and seems to move with the wind, blowing him from place-to-place with no reason or understanding ever given. Yet, as with the characters in Wuthering Heights, there is an unspoken bond. Agustin’s affair with Irene Rios – who is really a woman named Laura, who he occasionally writes – hits on something from Wuthering Heights as in the film Laura admitted that her past no longer haunted her, until Agustin reached out after so many years. There is a clear bond there – one that Estrella could very well be trying to understand in reading Wuthering Heights – and it is also one that Estrella shares with her father. Erice shows young Estrella hiding from her parents under her bed. Yet, as her mother runs around the house screaming her name all day, Agustin just sits in the attic, hitting his cane against the ground to let Estrella know that he knows she is still there. Estrella picks up the message, yet continues to hide, as the pair continue on in their unspoken battle of wills. This can be found in Wuthering Heights as the romantic pair rarely speak and are often at odds, yet always share that connection found at a hidden location in the mountains.
For El Sur, there is a similar location and one that fits perfectly in Erice’s repertoire. As with The Spirit of the Beehive, the locations within El Sur capture a certain feeling and meaning. In The Spirit of the Beehive, he created a home that looked just like a beehive – with an intention to use it to criticize Francoist Spain – while creating an isolated and dilapidated desert town for the film’s setting. It is hard to not see some of the similarities in El Sur. The home in which Estrella lives is known as “The Seagull” due to the seagull weathervane resting on the roof. The home is often described as being far away, while being right in the middle of the countryside and the city. The city itself is walled in on all sides, often the location of many of Estrella and Agustin’s adventures. Located in the North of Spain, the setting seems to be that of perpetual winter in which it always snows and is always cold. In the South, where the film is never able to go but is where Agustin is from originally, it is always warm and sunny. Left only to description, the far-away land of the South is somewhat of a mythological place for the young Estrella, envisioning what it is like and later fitting her father’s relatives into the world that she imagines. It is a place that comes to represent hope and a belief in something different, one that would allow her to somewhat understand and learn about her mysterious father as opposed to the chilly yet loving relationship they share in the North. As with The Spirit of the Beehive, it is clear that the weather and even the setting are intended to capture the rather distant and set apart relationship shared between Agustin and Estrella in which both know bits and pieces about one another without ever seeing the full picture.
Of course, it is hard to discuss the mythological nature of the South and the possibilities stored within should Estrella ever get to see it without mentioning the original intentions of Erice. The film in its current state ends awkwardly with a narration from the elder Estrella as the teenage version of Estrella (Icíar Bollaín) prepares to head to the South to visit her relatives there. The possibilities are endless, while possibly explaining why her anti-Francoist father left and why he and his pro-Francoist father fought “like cats and dogs”. She could walk the streets he walked and actually experience a city she had only dreamed about. Yet, she never gets to go. Erice had intended for her to visit the South – hence the name of the film being El Sur (The South) – but the producers of the film did not allow him to film this portion. Thus, instead of a three-hour film in which the first half is set in the North and the second half is set in the South, El Sur winds up as a 90-minute film that only gets to explore the former. For Erice himself, it is a clear spot of regret that El Sur was never able to become his vision of the film, but it does become quite interesting to leave the South unexplored and let it remain the title. Inadvertently, it fits in quite well with the overall mystery behind the relationship shared by Estrella and Agustin. The pair share an incredible bond and clearly love one another, but never really were able to know each other completely, always having just half of the story. In some cases, they glimpse the other half but in most, it remains an unanswered question. El Sur winds up the same way, unfulfilling in the sense that the audience knows there is something else to learn but powerful in its own right by what is known.
Visually, Erice is often able to capture this with the film’s typically beautiful lighting. Often times, Estrella’s face is shown with light on just one side of her face or she is somehow obscured in a different way. Agustin is similarly captured, and this is observed in a great scene in which the young Estrella walks around with her father’s pendulum as he instructs her how to use it. With Agustin’s body obscured, it appears as though it is just his head floating in the attic, while Estrella walks around him with just her hand visible as it holds the pendulum. The bond they share is somewhat captured here – while the pendulum proves to be a key in the film – and yet it speaks to the way in which they are still somewhat obscured from one another.
El Sur possesses great beauty beyond this lighting as well with many scenes being beautifully framed. Shots such as young Estrella sitting on the stairs, boxed in all around with the sun pouring through a window behind her or shots of Estrella riding her bike down a tree-line road are truly masterful in their aesthetic beauty and in a certain poetry the shots capture. Erice and editor Pablo Gonzalez de Amo further the film’s visual appeal with a variety of eye-catching dissolves and a terrific sequence in which Estrella narrates a shot of her youngest version riding a bike with a puppy running alongside her. By the time she rides back to the house – with a barely-there dissolve – she is a teenager with an adult dog barking excitedly next to her while leaves coat the ground. This similarly captures the film’s feeling of being visual poetry, while also demonstrating the incredible artistry of Erice and all involved.
Nonetheless, the film’s incomplete status is impossible to divorce from an overall assessment of El Sur. This is a great film to be sure, one with gorgeous lighting, strong writing, and typically great production design from Erice. However, as opposed to his directorial debut, it has that lingering feeling of what could have been. In a way, this helps, as it somewhat furthers the feeling between Estrella and her father. Yet, as it was not intended to be this way and certainly feels incomplete, it is hard to not see El Sur as one of cinema’s great what-if questions.
Criterion Collection Blu-ray Extras:
Including the full novella upon which El Sur is based, the Criterion Collection release of the film certainly delivers an interesting package. One extra is an interview with Victor Erice himself in which he discusses a variety of things, namely the production history of the film. Going from the start of filming to the premature ending of the production process, his desperate attempts at editing, and his mixed feelings towards critics loving what he views as an incomplete work, the interview is incredibly revealing. There is a forlorn sound in his voice as he describes what the second half would have shown, what it would have meant to him to shoot in the South, the discoveries that would be made about Agustin, and the way in which the first half’s thematic setups would be resolved in the second. This is a great extra for exploring these elements, but is definitely hard to listen to at times just due to the obvious emotion and regret he feels over how everything happened with the project.
Criterion has also included an hour-long panel discussion from Spanish television, entitled ¡Qué Grande Es El Cine! in which film critics Miguel Marias, Miguel Rubio, and Juan Cobos discuss the film. Diving into Erice’s filmography, how the film ties into his past work and his life, and exploring specific sequences, the discussion radiates with the love they clearly have for Erice and El Sur. The discussion is particularly interesting in how they discuss his cinematic influences and how he weaves these influences into his films. They state that he never copies or emulates, but rather, there are little indicators in how he shoots a scene, stages a moment, or paces a sequence that serves as indicators. The final bit of the discussion is a real highlight as well in which they go around mentioning their favorite shot or sequence from the film, only to then wind up stating one and then remembering all of the other moments they love as well. It is a great endorsement of the film itself, while being a great way to revisit the viewer’s own favorite moments.
The final extra is entitled The Making of El Sur. As with the other extras, it often touches on the portion of the film that was not filmed, DP Jose Luis Alcaine discussing how the dark lighting of the northern sequences was supposed to directly counter the brightness of the southern sequence. His commentary even extends to discussing the fight between Erice and the film’s producers after the production was stopped prematurely. Stories from the cast are especially illuminating as to Erice’s style, especially when Sonsoles Aranguren talks about her time on set as a young girl and how Erice was able to elicit emotions from her without her even realizing she was doing anything. This extra, as well as the others, are quite engaging and revealing about the film itself as well as its production process. The addition of the full novella more than overcomes any flaws in the overall extras package with this release very much being a “quality over quantity” situation.