El Sur (The South)

Susan Patterson watches Victor Erice’s Spanish classic

“Can it be that an unfinished film is one of the best in Spanish cinema history? Yes it can… 95 minutes of emotions so intense that you’re left breathless. I cry every time I watch it.” Pedro Almodóvar

Estrella (Icíar Bollaín), is close to her doctor father, Agustin (Omero Antonutti) but mystified by his past, and how it has made him the slightly distant man he has become.

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A visit from the south by Agustin’s rather grand mother, and her female companion, sheds no light on his apparent depression, and Estrella’s direct question about whether her father was a civil war prisoner is left unanswered.

Estrella’s mother Julia (Lola Cardona) is not allowed to  work as a teacher because of her role in the civil war,  which like Agustin’s is never made explicit. Agustin’s quiet refusal to attend Estrella’s first communion hints at a dislike of the Church and probable Republicanism, while his mother’s grandeur suggests that they were a Nationalist family. So much is alluded to, and it is never made clear why Julia deals with the past better than Agustin.

Iciar Bollaín was just 14 when she played Estrella. She has a quietly expressive face that carries her confusion without histrionics.   As an adult Bollaín directed Even the Rain, which we reviewed in 2011, a film every bit as nuanced and complex as El Sur.

It is Estella’s desire to find her father’s secrets that drives this beautifully shot film, made in 1983, which was intended to be longer, but ends at exactly the right point in the story.

In Almodóvar’s Words is currently on until October. El Sur opens at BFI Southbank, HOME Manchester, IFI Dublin, Curzon Bloomsbury and selected cinemas UK-wide today.

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