It was George Steiner who once spoke of the past as a golden world where everything was good, and that such an idea was a purely artificial construct, built out of the way time erodes memory and memory tries to hold onto what it can retain of the actual past (usually the good bits).

     I thought of this because of the way Víctor Erice's marvelously evocative sophomore feature, El Sur, frames so much of the past it dwells on in golden hues, faces and eyes positively radiating out of the darkness (not for nothing does the film begin with what seems to be a sunrise very slowly making its way along a darkened bedroom). But also because El Sur is a memoir, its voiceover spoken by a woman remembering her coming of age as a young girl during the mid-fifties, in the cold, chilly North of Spain, to where her physician father (a wonderful Omero Antonutti) moved from the South in search of a job. And also because this memoir of the inquisitive, gregarious Estrella (played first by Sonsoles Aranguren as a child and then by Iciar Bollaín as a teenager) focuses not so much on the golden moments of a childhood, but on the questions, the secrets, the unspoken family mysteries that the film never truly reveals but whose motives or reasons it hints at repeatedly.

     This is partly by design - Mr. Erice's work has never been openly explanatory - but partly by default: financial issues and disagreements with producer Elías Querejeta meant the director never shot the second half of his adaptation of writer Adelaida García Morales' novella, leaving El Sur an unfinished movie. The "South" of the title, the place Dr. Agustín came from originally, a land of heat and past Estrella has never been to but yearns to visit, holding an almost magical meaning in the family, is never seen in the truncated film - and yet El Sur is an entirely self-contained structure, one you would never recognise as half the film Mr. Erice intended, such is its airtight yet loose-limbed structure, its reliance on mood, performance, emotion to fill in the narrative blanks. Its patient accumulation of minutely detailed small nothings - images, visions, objects, lines of dialogue, places - coalesce into a heartbreaking tale of family love and loss, of the almost imperceptible crossing of the border between the wide-eyed wonder of childhood and the unavoidable disappointment of adult life, with cinema (yet again) as the poisoned apple that speeds up that process.

     As exquisitely pictorial as the director's debut The Spirit of the Beehive but even more diffuse and enchantingly enveloping, it's an absolutely wondrous picture; most directors will never reach the exalted level this incomplete film reaches almost effortlessly. It may very well be Mr. Erice's masterpiece.

Cast: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Iciar Bollaín, Lola Cardona, Rafaela Aparicio, Aurore Clément, María Caro, Francisco Merino, José Vivó, Germaine Montero
Director: Víctor Erice
Screenplay: Mr. Erice, from the novella El Sur by Adelaida García Morales
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine  (colour)
Designer: Antonio Belizon
Costumes: Maiki Marin
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Producer: Elías Querejeta  (Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematograficas, Chloë Productions)
Spain/France, 1983, 93 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, August 31st 2013


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