Reissue of the week: Victor Erice’s El Sur/The South (1983)

Thirty-three years after it premiered, Victor Erice’s little-seen follow-up to Voice of the Beehive is back in cinemas

In search of the past: Iciar Bollaín in El Sur

Film Title: El Sur (The South)

Director: Vistor Erice

Starring: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Icíar Bollaín, Aurore Clément

Genre: Mystery

Running Time: 95 min

Fri, Sep 16, 2016, 14:56


Perhaps it’s only appropriate that El Sur (1983), a film about absence and loss, exists as only one half of the 180-minute movie Victor Erice originally intended to make. A great deal of the film concerns what we don’t see. Thus, Generalissimo Franco is namechecked but once, the titular ‘South’ is never visited, and key characters exist only on the telephone or on a movie screen.

Those we do see are frequently shrouded in blackness, glazed darkly like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The production of the film is correspondingly mysterious: shooting halted, ostensibly for a Christmas break, only for the producer, Elías Querejeta, to call time on the project.  

In common with other hacked-down features – only 12 people witnessed all 462-minutes of Stroheim’s Greed; the rest of us have made-do with the surviving 239 – El Sur functions perfectly well, albeit strangely, as a stand-alone feature.

Working from a short story by his partner Adelaida García Morales, the director revisits many of the tropes and themes that defined his earlier masterpiece, Voice of the Beehive: a little girl’s view of the world and her father, the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and the strange transformations enabled by imagination and cinema.   

Estrella (played as a Communion-age girl by Sonsoles Aranguren, and as a teenager, by Iciar Bollaín) is 15 on the night her father disappears. Her recollections illustrate how their relationship has shifted over the past seven years: once a mystical figure exiled from ‘El Sur’ and a past that her parents never discuss, Estrella has pieced together a history of lost love and familial discord from old hand-painted photographs, letters, gossipy locals and a cinema lobby card.

Erice and DOP José Luis Alcaine (lately a Pedro Almodóvar regular) provide a masterclass in cinematic device. Watch out for the temporal skip – one dissolve, two dogs – and a floating trackback to an unoccupied chair. The striking visuals are intensified by the eerie silence that pervades much of the film.

For all the tricks and detective work, the past remains a ghostly, unknowable place for both viewer and heroine.