A pensive adolescent named Estrella (Icíar Bollaín) awakens at dawn to the alarming sound of barking dogs that progresses to an increasingly audible, anxious commotion downstairs as Estrella’s panicked mother, Julia (Lola Cardona) calls in vain for her husband Agustín (Omero Antonutti) and, upon discovering that he had mysteriously disappeared sometime during the night, awakens the housekeeper to help her search for him around the expansive, neighboring grounds of their rented country home. Meanwhile, underneath her pillow, Estrella discovers a small box containing a shiny pendant suspended on a chain – the same divining article that, as she recounts in an adult voiceover, he had suspended fifteen years earlier above his then-expectant wife’s distended stomach before predicting that she would give birth to a daughter – an episode that the young lady had, admittedly, perhaps invented in her own fanciful imagination to explain her profound connection to her father. The implications of the early morning’s frantic activity then contextually unfolds through the eyes of a younger Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) who, at the age of eight, is traveling with her parents on a cross-country train in order to relocate to northern Spain where her doting father has accepted – perhaps, reluctantly – a position as a staff physician at a rural hospital. Fueled in part by curiosity over her father’s perennially unrequited, romanticized longing to return to the southern city of Sevilla, as well as her parents’ palpable estrangement and pervasive silence over the nebulous circumstances that have brought them to their seemingly imposed exile in the north (in an explanation that is further muddled by her father’s gregarious and animated former governess, Milagros’ (Rafaela Aparicio) explanation of the rift between the republican Agustín and his pro-Franco father as a simplistic, but puzzling family feud caused by supporting opposite factions of illogically shifting “good” and the “bad” sides during the Spanish Civil War), Estrella attempts to piece together the intriguing fragments of her beloved father’s enigmatic past and impenetrable emotional façade, a puzzle that begins to take a bittersweet and disillusioning form after she encounters her father’s motorcycle near a surrogate place of dreams: the CineArcadia that is screening a melodrama entitled Flor en la Sombre featuring a luminous actress named Irene Ríos (Aurore Clément).
Based on the novel by Adelaida García Morales, El Sur is a deceptively lyrical and delicately realized, yet haunting portrait of maturation, estrangement, alienation, and dislocation. Victor Erice achieves an atmosphere that is both naturalistic and mystical by shooting in natural light to visually reinforce hues and gradations that, in turn, reflect Estrella’s gradual perceptional shift towards her father. Exploring similar themes that would also pervade Theo Angelopoulos’ subsequent 1986 film, The Beekeeper, Victor Erice draws an implicit correlation between geographic division and the legacy of civil war: the parallel rites of passage between the marriage of Spyros’ daughter in The Beekeeper and Estrella’s first holy communion in El Sur; the profoundly isolated Spyros’ apicultural migration to the south that represents a similar lure of an ephemeral (or unrequited) paradise lost to the melancholic and withdrawn Agustín (as well as both filmmakers’ paradoxical characterization of the south as a destination that represents vitality and figurative death); the complex role of the cinema as a place of escape and also a contemplative medium for introspection and personal assessment. Erice further integrally incorporates cinema into the development of the multilayered narrative through a passing homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (through a preview poster at the CineArcadia) that uncoincidentally bears a similar plot of a young woman’s demystification of her idolized, charismatic uncle with whom she believes she shares a profound connection (also note a similar integration of homage and narrative Erice’s earlier film, The Spirit of the Beehive and the James Whale film, Frankenstein). However, unlike the intrigue of the seminal Hitchcock film, the mystery of El Sur unravels with the imperceptible weight of a tossed skein of red yarn – exposing, not a barbarous crime, but the unendurable realization of being ordinary and unremarkably human.
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