For posterity’s sake, this was the first film I watched after watching The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973), an audiovisual sublime tapestry of cinema, filled with psychedelic visuals and cinema so abstract you could get lost in it. To then watch a film, a film set mostly in a single house in the North of Spain, about a little girl and her relationship with her father, and the world of the adults kept hidden in all of us, with no flashy visuals or bombastic score. It was what I would define as the other end of the spectrum, a work of cinema so simple on first glance that even a child could understand its mechanics. The dense symbolism of The Holy Mountain is lost on many of its viewers, but El Sur (Dir. Victor Erice, 1983) would most likely not suffer the same fate. It is a story of memories, time and the broken, fragmentary nature of human relationships.
It is a testament to cinema, to the artistic merit, and to Victor Erice himself that the hidden depths in El Sur can evoke just as much wonderment as anything found in Jodorowsky’s film. I don’t want to make a habit of using other films as litmus tests, but I felt it particularly apt at this point. Now let’s talk about El Sur.
It is a deceptively simple film on first glance. As I mentioned above, the usual spectacle of cinema is absent here. The spaces are limited, representative of their locales without being picturesque, only being transformed by one of the most exquisite uses of lighting I have ever seen in a film. Most of the story is not actually seen, referring to events from the memories of the past unknown to us and the future as yet unseen. I’m reminded of a screenwriting rule I heard once which said something along the lines of “If this is not the most interesting period in the characters life, then its not worth watching”. Watching this, I’m glad to say that rule could and most likely should be broken. It seems to be a story almost composed of the parts other more conventional narrative technicians would skip, the parts which ask us as an audience to maintain an emotional communication and not much more. The secrets stay hidden, the faces reveal only what’s on the surface and a hint, an imagining at the depths below.
Make no mistake, though the film is delicate and subtle, it is still undeniably moving and evocative. It contains one of the most beautiful edits I have ever seen, one which my words will do little justice to. I will not spoil it here by crudely recreating with words, but rest assured that it left me quietly stunned. So too the lighting and cinematography, evoking the world of painting, of the rich textured chiaroscuro found in the works of Caravaggio and others. It helps to evoke so much, textures of magic and illusion, darkness and other-worldliness, the passage of time and moods. All of this sounds non-specific, but what else can you take from a film sealed in its own timeless realm? It’s about the timeline of Estrella and her father, everything else submitted to this temporal reality. One of the most impressive things about cinema is its way to manipulate time, to not just place us in a recreated period, but to ignore the usual flow of linear time and re-arrange it as one sees fit, so that the only timeline that matters is the one created by the film. Space and what you put in front of the screen is often to do with your budget, but time is democratic in film, anyone can manipulate it.
It’s a film about people, not about plot. The story is primarily in the eyes of the actors, not in the mechanics of its story.I’m not trying to diminish the conventions of narrative cinema, I’m just trying to explain what I like so much about this film which is showing what can’t be seen, not showing what can be seen or telling rather than showing. It’s a film about the inner worlds we carry around inside of us, constantly and weighing heavy on our minds and souls. About the frail delicate connections we have, and as we grow as people how they fade rather than change.And the actor required for such a role is always carries such an irony, because you have to act as a inward soul would act, not revealing the extent of their emotions or motivations but withholding the very things at their core which we desperately seek to understand.
Everything about this film is beautifully understated, and once again I find myself in the peculiar position of finding my words to be nothing more than a crude accompaniment to the film itself, and yet feeling very happy about this because its true language is that of cinema, communicating in images and sounds and music and the senses, rather than the written word. It’s a film which feels truthful, by straying closer to evoking the real world we live in, where our stories are not always neatly tied up and resolved, where we skip like a stone along the sea beating the other way, pushing as far as we can against a tide of unknown.
On the cover of the DVD, there is a quote from Pedro Almodóvar, which says “One of the best in Spanish Cinema history”. While I haven’t seen enough Spanish cinema to give my judgement, I can safely say this is one of the most poignant and beautifully melancholic films I’ve had the pleasure of watching recently. The art of subtlety is aptly underappreciated, and you could do a lot worse than spend some time in the presence of the dreams of the South, El Sur.
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