One day in 1957, Estrella wakes up at dawn, disturbed by the cries of her mother and the housemaid calling out for her father. Estrella is perhaps 17 or 18, so her birth must have been very soon after the official end of the Spanish Civil War. She reaches beneath her pillow and finds her father’s pendulum. She knows that this time his disappearance is final. He bolted once before, spending the night in the railway hotel and missing the train that he might have taken. Was he attempting to escape or was it a suicide attempt? We cannot really tell. What is he escaping from – the daughter he dotes on; the woman who loves him, who sacrificed her own self-fulfilment to be with him but whom he has cut off from his emotional life; from himself? A sense of failure hangs over both husband and wife. The regime has barred her from teaching: she now busies herself teaching Estrella and with various hobbies, including making and mending clothes. The gulf she feels between herself and her husband turns into neuralgia after his first escape attempt. In his past, there is a quarrel with his nationalist-siding father and a strange, embittered love affair with Irene Rios that ended badly for both of them. Afterwards, she tried to become an actress, made four films as a second-string femme fatale figure and retired to obscurity. The cinema ticket-seller does not even know her by name.
It is a film of dualities – at its heart is a conflict between the hot, mysterious south and the cold, circumscribed north. Estrella now lives just outside a walled city, maybe Zamora, where the sun never seems to shine. Agustin’s old nurse, Milagros, is a garrulous old Andalusian whose speech is very different from the Castilian of Agustin and his mother. She is free and open, not tight and reserved.
The chilly, muted cinematography is superb, evoking a barren, desolate place a long way from the reality of either Zamora or Vitoria – the locations given in the credits – but depicting a paysage d’ame. Every character is given depth and sympathy by Victor Erice but the core of the film are the interactions between Agustin and Estrella. They know each other and manipulate each other. The last meal they take together is haunting. The present-day Estrella commenting on this story still wonders if she could or should have said or done something. Was he really so far gone in his despair and misery? She still regrets being unable to lift him out of his self-loathing.
At the end of the film, she leaves to unlock the mysteries of the south. Maybe the emotional openness of Milagros will help the 18 year old of that time. It is interesting to reflect on what happened to turn that girl into the woman who narrates the film, who is still unwilling or maybe unable to do any more than just present the events as they unfold, without interpretation.