a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Painting without words

A few weeks ago I wrote about how writers paint with words. This week I’m going to write about painting without words, and two remarkable films, from the same man, that are paintings. These are films you’ve probably never seen, never even heard of, and that’s a great loss to you.

Victor Erice is the director behind both these works. Never heard of him? You’re in good company. Even Roger Ebert* was late in coming to his films. He’s sort of a Terrence Malick of Spanish film, making only three pictures since his debut in 1973, all of them quiet, contemplative studies in which the central character inhabits a dream-like state, and nature, or simply the act of being in the world, is very central. Except I tend to find pretension in Malick and honesty in Erice. But for both directors words take a back seat to visuals. I’m particularly struck by Erice’s images—if Vermeer came back to life he’d come as Erice.

The-Spirit_05el-sur-1beehive-trainWindow

Erice tells his stories with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of imagery. But the imagery, to me, feels more organic than that of many other filmmakers who go this way. The places, the buildings, the very textures in the films become characters. Spirit of the Beehive is as much about the train tracks and whistle, the deserted building, the empty house, and “Don José” as it is about the two young girls, age ten and six, who are growing up in 1940 civil war-torn Spain. A father figure hovers but is not very close to either of them, living in a past that’s never fully explored or explained. Their mother is also isolated and spends her days writing love letters to someone—we don’t know who. Soon a soldier for the freedom-fighting resistance jumps from one of the passing trains and takes up shelter in the barn. Is he the lover? The film never answers the question.

We’re looking at everything through the eyes of a girl who’s just six years old (Ana Torrent in her first film; she’s since grown up to become a leading lady in Spain’s film industry and has even made a few appearances in mainstream American fare). She does not understand everything that’s happening around her, or see all the relationships, so we don’t. Terrence Malick tried the same thing in his Days of Heaven, but that film felt labored and self-consciously stylized to me while here everything feels natural, as though the whole film were an improvisation.

In one amazingly simply and economical scene, Ana is confronted with her role in aiding and abetting the fugitive. While he was hiding in the building she went there—she and her sister had been playing games in it earlier—and gave him food and her father’s coat for warmth. Town officials find this coat after he’s killed by Franco’s forces overnight in an exchange of gunfire. Inside the coat is the father’s pocket watch, which chimes a unique song at the top of the hour. At the breakfast table next morning the father wordlessly sets the watch down and makes it play, eliciting no response in the older sister since she was not complicit, but startling Ana. That’s how he knows she’s the guilty party. She’s frightened and runs away. All of the above happens without a single word of dialogue spoken, but it seems perfectly natural to do it this way. I wonder what Charlie Chaplin would have thought of Erice.

beehive6Then comes the supremely-eerie scene. Earlier Ana and her sister had seen a showing of James Whale’s Frankenstein at the local schoolhouse. This is actually a heck of a film to show impressionable children, but so be it. Now that Ana is alone and has consumed some mushrooms for food that her father had warned her to avoid, she has an encounter with the monster that mirrors the famous flower petal scene in Whale’s film, although this one does not end the same way. (Ana is found safe and sound the next day.)

FrankensteinErice had originally wanted to film the story of a girl who returns home to find her aging father dying, and while going through his effects she makes a discovery about his past. He and his screenwriter came up with a back story. That back story turned into Spirit of the Beehive, which they liked so much they filmed instead. Ten years later Erice returned to the same subject matter with some modifications and that became The South. In this film, equally still and equally haunting, a similar young girl makes a discovery about her father—and why he seems rather estranged from her mother—early one morning after he goes missing. Tracing her life as she grows up in a village not too different from the town in Spirit, the film chronicles her slow realization that the father she idolized was just a feeble human, smaller in stature than she once thought and burdened with very ordinary weaknesses. One of them is for a faded movie actress who went by the stage name Irene Rios and to whom she still writes love letters, or at least one love letter. She’d rather not meet him again, she writes back. He decides to leave on a train for the south (of Spain) anyway, but falls asleep and misses his ride.

El+sur dance

The father gradually falls in the girl’s eyes from a magic figure to mortal with feet of clay. There was supposed to be a third act which would have made the picture three hours long, but the producer stopped Erice at a point and said they were out of money, so the actual trip to the south of Spain by the girl is never shown. It is presumed here she’ll learn (from her grandmother) more about the family secrets only hinted about in the letter to Rios and other items the father left behind.  I think it’s better this way. As with Spirit of the Beehive, a lot is left unsaid, and this works to the film’s benefit.

El Sur baby

Both movies use many of the same elements: the isolated village, a small child, cinema as a window to the outside, an estranged father and mother, off-screen romance, a family member who disappears and is the object of a search, a daughter who becomes physically ill from a personal realization, a family numbed by a dictatorship. They share a mood, a rhythm, and very naturalistic lighting and acting (so much more vivid here than when I saw one of them in a battered 16mm print back in the late ’80s). Both use music sparingly. Both are shrouded in chiaroscuro.

Yet they are so different. They complement each other, but with the same elements Erice made completely different films. Nothing from one feels borrowed for the other. Writers could learn a thing or two about how to tell stories with imagery rather than dialogue from these films. It’s sad neither one can easily be  found in the United States, and especially not on Bluray, which is really necessary for these gorgeous images. If you ever have the chance to see these titles—at a film festival or whatever—by all means do so. They’re an experience like none other, and both works are worth of more attention than they get. I wonder how many other hidden gems are out there, waiting to be discovered.

* I wrote this entry before Mr. Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013.

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