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.

NORBERT MILLAUER/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.