Evoking the films of Carlos Saura in its allegorical portraits of culturally entrenched social and psychological landscapes (most notably, in The Hunt) coupled with Luis Buñuel’s wry excoriation of the bourgeoisie, Mario Camus’ The Holy Innocents presents a caustic and potent indictment of the inhumanity (and corruption) of privilege, class stratification, and marginalization. Adapted from the novel by Spanish author Miguel Delibes, the film traces the interweaving personal stories of a peasant family working in the rural province of Extremadura at the feudal estate overseen by Doña Pura (Ágata Lys) during the early 1960s, as Franco solidified his stronghold (or rather, stranglehold) over the country with the support of powerful administrators like Doña Pura who represented the incestuous relationship between the upper class and the Catholic church. The film opens to image of a soldier, Quirce (Juan Sachez), recently discharged from the military, writing a letter to his sister at an empty café in what would prove to be a procrastinated homecoming. A series of extended flashbacks filmed from the perspective of several family members provides the framework for the young man’s reluctant journey home as Quirce, then a teenager, and his family – headed by his father Paco (Alfredo Landa), a dutiful gamekeeper, and his mother, Régula (Terele Pávez) – are uprooted from their home at the instigation of Doña Pura’s heir, Don Pedro (Agustín González), who has decided to relocate them in order to tend to his remote country estate. It is a move that the couple eagerly embraces in the belief that the geographic change will afford their older children, Nieves (Belén Ballesteros) and Quirce better opportunities for a proper education (and consequently, escape the cycle of poverty) beyond the self-instruction grammar drill kits that the government has disseminated to every peasant household in the country in order to promote (superficial) widespread literacy – a hope that is soon dissipated when, upon their arrival, Don Pedro appoints Nieves to be his wife’s housemaid, and the family learns that the seeming unexpected visit by Régula’s aging, simple-minded brother Azarías (Francisco Rabal) has become a more permanent arrangement, having been unceremoniously let go by his employer after spending a lifetime under his service for vague grievances regarding his boorish, unsanitary manners and impetuous behavior following the illness of his trained, homing pet owl, Kite. Left with few responsibilities except to occasionally watch over the couple’s severely disabled young daughter (Susana Sánchez) (an affliction that perhaps also alludes to the family’s insubstantive nutrition and inadequate access to health services caused by their poverty), Azarías seems content with living out his remaining years as an eccentric, if innocuous nuisance around the estate grounds and training Quirce’s present, a new pet bird to replace his beloved Kite, to home. But as the family settles into a familiar routine of Don Pedro’s perennially unfolding domestic dramas and Señorito Iván’s (Agustín González) capricious (and often callous) demands to maintain his competitiveness during game hunting season, the couple’s hopes for a better life for their own children begins to dissipate in the reality of their demoralizing, subhuman existence. This sense of pervasive dehumanization is perhaps best illustrated in Señorito Iván’s seemingly genial, yet intrinsically contemptuous and exploitive interactions with the all too obliging Paco that would ultimately have profound repercussions for the entire family – initially, in his orders to track the scent of an errant, shot bird (an acquired skill that he backhandedly praises as being superior to that of a hunting dog), and subsequently, in extolling the government’s literacy campaign, subverting his empty proclamations of the country’s unprecedented social equality achieved under fascism by parading the servants as common spectacles before his dinner guests and instructing them to write out their names in order to prove their literacy. Inevitably, what emerges from Camus’ understated, yet incisive gaze is a profoundly sobering portrait of a silent (and silenced), resigned servitude and institutionalized, moral enslavement enabled by insular – and essentially arbitrary – privilege and systematic exclusion.
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