Criterion Review: The Unfinished Vision of EL SUR

Victor Erice’s gorgeous masterwork is now out on Blu-Ray

Victor Erice’s cinematic treasure El Sur is a portrait of a father through his daughter’s eyes. Adult Estrella narrates the film, adapted by the director from a novella from Spanish author Adelaida García Morales. There is a dash of mythmaking to Estrella’s young memories of her father Agustín, a middle-aged doctor in northern Spain.

Italian actor Omero Antonutti plays Estrella’s mysterious father, lost in his own reminiscences — or held captive by them — in this time period not long after the Spanish Civil War. As Estrella grows from 8 years old (Sonsoles Aranguren) to fifteen (Icíar Bollaín), she learns of her dad’s imperfections. Through his faults, he becomes more human in her eyes, and less the mystical wonder she idolized as a child.

José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography hearkens back to the style of the great Dutch masters, as figures are bathed in warm or soft light. Sunlight peeking through the windows of Estrella’s northern home is a repeated visual motif. The careful lighting adds to the picturesque moments of memory, as vignettes fade in and out.

Music by Granados punctuates Estrella’s storytelling; a few of his Danzas españolas add to the nostalgic theme of Erice’s work. Estrella attempts to puzzle out her father’s secrets, but he keeps mum. The viewer is only allowed a hint as Agustín writes to an actress at a diner and the camera pans over his note, or we hear the mysterious woman’s response to his letter, a voice over the dissonance of a piano being tuned.

El Sur is only half of the work Erice imagined it could be — his producers cut funding after only the northern portion had been shot. This film doesn’t feel incomplete, but knowing that there could have been more of the beautiful and haunting masterwork had commerce not interfered with creativity… that’s the larger disappointment. At least we have this film, glowing with promise and providing a glimpse at lives affected by the lingering trauma of war.

The Criterion BluRay edition includes:

  • Stunning 2K digital restoration of the feature with new English subtitle translation
  • 2003 interview with director Erice reflecting on his original plans for the second half of the feature
  • Video short about the making of El Sur, including interviews with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine and actors Sonsoles Aranguren, Icíar Bollaín, and Omero Antonutti
  • 1996 episode of ¡Qué grande es el cine! with a focus on El Sur
  • Booklet packet includes the novella by Adelaida García Morales and an essay on Erice’s film by novelist and critic Elvira Lindo

Buy: Criterion | Amazon

Previous post Two Cents Feels the Fire with LA 92