When production started on Víctor Erice’s El Sur (The South), the plan was to make a three-hour film, with approximately half taking place in the north of Spain and the other half taking place in the titular south. However, when filming on location up north finished, the producer, Elías Querejeta, decided the film was done. An entire half of the story is left out, then, and remains solely in the imagination. And yet the film is the better for it. At least, I imagine it is, for how can I know just what was left out, what mysteries would be revealed. Fittingly, El Sur is all about the unanswered mysteries that reside in the South.
As is the case in Erice’s masterful The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur focuses its attention on a child growing up amidst secrets and suggestive silences in Franco’s Spain, this time in the 1950s. Before taking us back to 1950, the film begins in 1957. The young girl, Estrella, is fifteen years old when wakes up to find that her father, a doctor named Augustín, whom she loves deeply — all the more so because he seems to have unanswerable mysteries about him — has left home, leaving her with one of his prized possessions, a pendulum he uses to determine the gender of a baby one of his pregnant patients is carrying.
This pendulum is emblematic of her mysterious father. She doesn’t know how it works. She sees it seem to work magic that she cannot comprehend. And, saddest of all, in spite of being unknowable — indeed, because it is unknowable — it evokes much more curiosity and wonder than perhaps it deserves.
The film takes us back to 1950, when Estrella is eight. She lives in the colder coutryside in the north of Spain with her father and mother. Her mother is a kindly woman who evokes no curiosity. We from the narrator — Estrella some many years after childhood — that she and her mother spent hours and hours together, but Estrella doesn’t really remember them. Her mother is part of the routine.
Little by little, the young Estrella picks up tidbits that suggest so much more drama than their life currently holds. Augustín’s father was a hard man, a Francoist whom Augustín repudiated. Estrella knows her father never attends church. This creates a quiet tension between her parents, though both are kind and try to keep all of their disagreements and difficulties subdued.
Finally, a bit of Augustín’s past emerges. His mother and nanny have come north to attend Estrella’s first communion. There is genuine joy at the reunion.
Erice manages to present everyone in this drama as a caring, genuinely good person. That we know Augustín abandons his family in a few years is disheartening and hard to comprehend. What happens to make this man leave? From what we see, this time in 1950 may have its tensions, but there is a modicum of peace and happiness. Augustín even emerges from the shadows to attend Estrella’s first communion.
These scenes are warm and intimate, even if the North is often cold. However, mysteries, even if they are not solved, have a way of arising and interrupting the peaceful flow of life. As Estrella learns a bit more about her father’s past, her understanding of her father remains mysterious but it takes a darker tone.
El Sur really is a marvel. It might not be as outwardly ambitious as The Spirit of the Beehive, but for me it is just as compelling and rewarding. And even though the film had another ending in mind, what we get here is a complete film that builds to heartbreak. It’s perfect. We know something is missing since the final part of the film is gone, but keeping the South in our minds, keeping it out of reach, makes it all the more powerfully present.