Starring: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Lola Cardona, Iciar Bollain
Directed by: Victor Erice
By all accounts, El Sur is an unfinished movie. Although the key players disagree as to why, it’s abundantly clear that this movie is incomplete. It’s disjointed as parts of the story seem like they’re unintentionally missing while other parts of it are hyper-detailed. Yet Victor Erice is still able to tell an intriguing tale of a daughter growing up to realize that her father isn’t the deity that she has mythologized but a man with flaws. It takes a while for the movie to find its footing, but in the end, it’s worth the journey.
Growing up in a home on the edge of town, Estrella (Aranguren as an 8-year-old/Bollain as a 15-year-old) lives a typical life for a Spanish girl after World War II. She idolizes her father, Agustin (Antonutti) who practices pseudo-science. He regularly secludes himself in his attic to work on experiments and makes a living using a divining rod with a pendulum to help people find water. Estrella believes her father can do anything. However, as she grows up, Estrella begins to learn about his past; including his refusal to return to his home in the south after the end of the Spanish Civil War, his broken relationship with his father, and that he has an infatuation with a mysterious woman. In her teenage years, Estrella grows distant from her father as his behaviour becomes more erratic.
This could have been a deep and insightful look at how children idolize their parents when they’re younger only to discover that they’re human as they grow up. El Sur, while still managing to make for an interesting story, misses the impact it could have had due to its inconsistent flow. The plot takes forever to get going. Over the first half of the movie is spent introducing the characters, develop a bit of mystery behind Agustin’s past, and Estrella’s first communion. It’s only in the second half (closer to the final 40%) of the movie do things actually get going where we learn how Agustin’s complex past is straining on his marriage and how Estrella is finally starting to see her father for who he really is rather than a superhero. This makes for a first half that slow and kind of boring and a second half that should have been prolonged to be able to have some of the more thought-provoking moments time to digest with the audience. Apparently, there’s another part to the movie that’s missing, which makes perfect sense as the first half of the movie feels stretched.
It’s a sad story as many can attest to thinking that their parents were divine growing up only to come to the realization that their human like everyone else. One of the struggles that Estrella has is coming to grips with the idea that her father isn’t perfect and makes decisions that are less than ideal. This is a movie that pulls at the psyche of most of its viewers and the actors fare well at keeping the audience emotionally invested. Antonutti does a great job playing the reserved Agustin although the reserved nature of the character doesn’t do much to push the actor to his limits. Lola Cardona shows great ability portraying Agustin’s wife Julia; playing a woman who is slowly watching her life unravel and scared of losing her husband and her daughter.
The film would have benefitted from developing Agustin’s character more; maybe even some flashbacks of his decision to leave his home or his final moments with your father. If the movie had been complete, then this wouldn’t have been necessary because the mystique behind Agustin’s past is curious and lends to the secrecy that Estrella is trying to decode. However, since the story drags for much of the movie, some additional insight as to what makes Agustin tick would have made the film far more interesting.
Victor Erice’s El Sur could have been a brilliant film but because it’s unfinished and then spread out to come across as a full movie, it leaves one looking for more. It’s a shame as El Sur is not a bad movie, but one that makes you think could have been better. It’s underwhelming which is disappointing because the subject matter is interesting and relatable to most. It’s still worthwhile to watch, but not one that should be on anyone’s must-see list.