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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.