Ana, a small, darkly serious girl of about 10, stands at the top of the stairs of her darkly ominous home and hears sounds that we guess are all too familiar to her. A man and a woman are in a room below obviously in the throes of a sexual embrace. The passionate declarations of love cease abruptly as something apparently has gone wrong—someone can’t breathe. Ana descends the stairs and watches as an attractive woman, dressed save for an unbuttoned blouse, runs toward the front door, spilling the contents of her purse in the process. Ana watches her unemotionally as she gathers her things; when the woman finally notices her, they stare at each other wordlessly, and then the woman exits the house. Ana enters the room, finds her father laying dead on his bed, picks up an emptied glass from his dresser, takes it into the kitchen, and washes and hides it among the glasses sitting next to the sink. Clearly, Ana believes she has poisoned her own father, an act for which she shows no emotion.
Cria Cuervos, a masterpiece of Spanish cinema, is the work of director Carlos Saura, perhaps best known for his dance films, especially his flamenco trilogy comprising Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983), and El amor brujo (1986). As with those films, Saura’s passionate, brooding sensibility informs what in other hands might be a simple story of grief. Ana, you see, is a Spanish girl living in a spacious home in Madrid because her father (Hector Alterio) is an officer in Franco’s fascist army. The times and her father’s compulsive womanizing that cruelly tortured Ana’s beloved mother (Geraldine Chaplin) until her untimely and painful death have marked Ana. She seeks a vengeance her mother was too weak to exact, thus marking her as every bit her father’s daughter.
The genius of this film is in showing children as the sponges they are, observing and absorbing everything around them, imitating adults with playacting that reveals the truths of their lives, and feeling the omnipotence of youth even when death is all around them. There are three girls in this tale—teenaged Irene (Conchita Perez), middle child Ana (Ana Torrent), and young and innocent Maite (Mayte Sanchez)—but Saura privileges Ana’s story, perhaps judging Irene too old not to understand some of the complexities of adulthood and Maite too young. Although the girls play together, dressing up and enacting with great accuracy an argument between their parents about his womanizing, Ana’s hallucinations of her mother—and indeed, speaking in the guise of her mother as an adult remembering her past—convey Ana’s horrible dislocation, longing, and grief in a way that helps audiences to experience it.
Saura plays with our perceptions of fantasy and reality. In one scene, the girls’ aunt (Monica Randall), who has taken over their care, is combing Ana’s hair. Ana’s mother appears and says she’ll take over, and Ana experiences the loving touch of her mother again until, abruptly, we see that her aunt never moved. In another, very evocative scene, Ana stares at the rooftop of a building across the street from a park near her home. Saura’s camera takes us closer and closer to the tiny figure standing there, revealing that it is Ana herself. She leaps in the air, and Saura’s camera swoops in the open air above the busy street in an approximation of flying. Ana’s fantasy of freedom demonizes the adults who control her life, alternately arousing her wish to die or kill.
The incongruity between Ana Torrent’s looks and actions nails this drama to the floor with unrelenting dread. With her round, big eyes and short, untameable hair, she has all the innocence of a Margaret Keane subject. Her barely there sexuality is a source of curiosity, as when she pretends to breastfeed a doll and asks Rosa (Florinda Chico), the maid, to show her breasts, which Ana judges to be huge, but it also arouses a murderous jealousy toward her father and protectiveness toward her mother. Ana misses nothing, from being able to intuit what photo her speech-deprived, wheelchair-bound grandmother (Josefina Diaz) wants to examine more closely from a bulletin board set up for her entertainment to watching her father and a married family friend (Mirta Miller) kissing in the bushes of a country estate.
It is often through the eyes of children that we are able to see our own corruption, and even more horribly, how that corruption is handed down through the generations. Ana overestimates her mother’s saintliness in believing everything her mother told her. In learning about her mother’s limitations, Ana’s sociopathy may eventually dissipate, or she may fulfill the proverb from which the film gets its title: Raise crows, and they will peck your eyes out.