Daily Projections, 6-11-2019: El Sur (1983)

Title: El Sur
Director: Victor Erice
Country of Origin: Spain
Year: 1983
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

It’s hard to break down the plot of something like El Sur. Much like Erice’s first feature, The Spirit of the Beehive (made a decade before this one), El Sur is about mood and atmosphere. And what an atmosphere it is. Estrella is a child in the early days of Franco’s Spain. For Estrella, her father is a source of wonder and mystery who she longs to be close to but who remains shrouded in darkness. Literally. For much of the first half of the film, Augustín (her father) is lit from only one side, half of him obscured by shadows. Watching El Sur feels like a rare glimpse into the Platonic ideal of cinematic photography. Everything about it – the tone, the lighting, the photography, the way the camera moves (when it moves) – feels luminous. Lighting, particularly early on, lends the film an air of enigma, reflective both of Augustín’s mysterious past and of a child’s half-formed understanding of the world. As she grows, Estrella’s world (and her father) emerge from the shadows as more is illuminated, dreary, gray, and cold as her new reality may be. To watch El Sur feels like watching a live action Caravaggio and, to my mind, the fact that Erice has made so few feature films is one of the great injustices of European cinema. El Sur itself is really only half the film it was intended to be (the agreed upon 81-day shooting schedule was cut off after 48 days, apparently due to a lack of funding). Yet maybe it is that scarcity which lends an air of magic and mystery to Erice’s existing work.