Shot at the twilight of Franco’s dictatorship, this bleak Spanish drama is intense, brilliant and hard work. I can’t in all honesty say that I enjoyed Carlos Saura’s film – yet it lingers in the mind long after it’s over.
Ana Torrent, from Spirit of the Beehive, plays another sombre, perhaps malevolent child – also called Ana – who watches her family disintegrate – in the opening scene, she catches her father, an Army officer, dying of a heart attack in flagrante with his best friend’s wife. His own wife, Ana’s mother, had already died some years earlier after years of illness and – the film implies – brutal treatment from her husband. Ana is convinced that she killed her father by poisoning him – in fact, she has fed him a small amount of bicarbonate that her mother had previously, jokingly, referred to as poison.
Ana and her two sisters – one older, one younger – are now being brought up by their aunt Paulina (Monica Randall), and she rebels in small, petulant childish ways against the new regime in her home – being made to use a knife and fork properly and expected to behave in a way unaccustomed is something she objects to. She takes comfort in memories of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin, who also plays the adult Ana, remembering the story as a flashback), who appears in fantasy scenes that are woven into the main narrative, making her a ghostly presence in the story. Meanwhile, maid Rosa (Florinda Chico) starts to tell her the truth about her family.
The idea of the younger generation having been let down, brutalised and oppressed by an older dictatorship, waiting patiently for it to die out while fantasising that they might have somehow been responsible for (or at least hastened) it’s demise is obviously a potent one to come out of a nation that had been under fascist rule for four decades. And Saura makes his point quietly but forcefully, with Torrent’s astonishing performance at the heart of the story. In this sense, the film is truly remarkable, a work of great beauty and darkness. But at no point is it really emotionally engaging in the way it should be. Ana is not a particularly sympathetic character – at times, she seems more the spoiled brat than victim of tragedies.
The film has a distance when it perhaps should be more intimate. It’s a movie that it easy to admire, but difficult to like.