Film clips, especially from old Hollywood films great and ordinary, loom large in the cinema of Spanish director Víctor Erice (born 1940): from Boris Karloff in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) as featured in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), to Basil Rathbone in The Scarlet Claw (1944), figuring in the short La Morte Rouge (2006), made by Erice as part of a museum exhibition shared with the late Abbas Kiarostami. In El Sur (1983), he goes so far as to invent his own, exact pastiche of an imaginary melodrama in black and white, Flor en la sombra (Flower in the Shadow), which his central characters see at a local movie house.
El Sur is on re-release in UK cinemas from 16 September 2016.
In his lyrical writings on cinema, too, Erice pursues a reflection that is close to that of many current practitioners of the audiovisual essay. In 1989, he suggested that it is “possible to isolate a series of scenes – of privileged moments – that synthesise the best part of the movies they comprise, one which, once discovered, gives the impression of passing over a threshold, as if images revealed life’s multiple truths.”
For Erice, these truths of life are linked, above all, to memory – the rich, Proustian sense-memory that is formed during childhood and adolescence, and to which his adult characters are virtually condemned to return, whether in rapturous joy or (more often) melancholic regret. Although Erice has made comparatively few films since the 1960s, and found himself blocked from realising several key projects that he extensively prepared, the poetic coherence of his work is, nonetheless, stunning. From film to film, similar images, sounds, situations, settings – as well as an unmistakeable and precise mood – recur, caught in the same entrancing web of haunted memory.
In his final book Film Modernism, the scholar Sam Rohdie, who died in 2015, evoked the atmosphere of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) in words very close to those that Erice wrote about this same film when he was a young critic in the mid 1960s. According to Rohdie: “The present, because already a past, becomes nostalgia for what has been lost even as what has been lost comes into being, a future already of the past, that reaches out towards the moments of its disappearance. Sweetness, perhaps something closer to ecstasy, is to seize those moments.
My father the hero
Despite having had its funding pulled and its production halted 48 days into an 81-day shoot, Víctor Erice’s tantalising, incomplete 1983 film ‘El sur’ is still regarded by many as a masterpiece, telling the tale of a young girl’s relationship with her secretive, emotionally distant father. By Mar Diestro-Dópido.