Raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes

If you’ve seen The Cement Garden, Pan’s Labyrinth or The Others, you are already familiar with some of the pictures which wouldn’t exist without Carlos Saura's Cría cuervos.

“Raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes.” So runs the Spanish proverb which lends Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens) its title. This allegory of a country wriggling out of the clutches of a dictatorship (it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival six months after the death of General Franco) operates highly effectively also as a parable of childhood powerlessness, and the resentments that are liable to be fostered therein.

Ana (Ana Torrent) tiptoes through her spooky house late at night and eavesdrops accidentally on the death of her father, a respected military man who expires in the arms of his married lover. Ana’s mother died some months earlier, squirming in her bed and wracked with stomach pains brought on (Ana suspects) by poisoning, though her benevolent ghost is prone to pop up in the middle of the night to chide Ana gently about raiding the fridge. The child blamed her father for this loss, and resolved to poison him in return; when he does actually die, she becomes convinced that it was her doing. 

In an on-stage interview conducted in 2011 and included among the extras on the BFI’s new DVD release of Cría cuervos, Saura reveals that his inspiration for the film was simply the concept of a child who wanted to kill. He couldn’t have found a better conduit for that idea than nine-year-old Ana Torrent, whose face is as unreadable as it is transfixing: looking at her, it’s impossible to know whether she’s contemplating playing with her dolls or sprinkling broken glass in your porridge.

Torrent had given such a hypnotic performance three years earlier as the girl with the Frankenstein fixation in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. (Erice happened to be one of Saura’s pupils at film school in Madrid.) Her expression in Cría cuervos is blank and beautiful, her gaze unfaltering, and her head just a shade too big for her slender neck, so that it sometimes seems to wobble slightly on its stalk. It’s no exaggeration to say, as Saura has done, that there would be no movie without her: so much of the characterisation is embedded in her stillness (which never seems starker than when she is listening to Jeanette’s naggingly chirpy pop song, “Because You’re Leaving”). And it’s such a shock when her impassive expression is broken, especially in one upsetting scene in which Ana is reprimanded by her aunt during another instance of tiptoeing around amorous adults, or when she watches her mother writhing on her death bed and gasping her verdict on the subject of an impending afterlife: “It’s all a lie. There’s nothing. Nothing! They lied to me.”

When we think of revolutionary approaches to casting, it is usually Luis Buñuel’s last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, which springs to mind for the daring conceit of having the part of an unknowable woman shared between two performers. But a year earlier in Cría cuervos, Saura had used one actor, his then-partner Geraldine Chaplin, to play both Ana’s dead mother and the adult Ana herself, who narrates the events of her childhood from decades later, a choice which is just as insightful and unsettling. Those adjectives will do nicely for the film itself. If you’ve seen The Cement Garden, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Others, or Pablo Larrain’s first two films about Chile under Pinochet, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, you will already be familiar with some of the pictures which wouldn’t exist, at least not in the shape they do now, without Cría cuervos.

Cría cuervos is released on DVD on Monday.

Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin in Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens). Photograph: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution