Directed by Mario Camus
With Francisco Rabal (Azarías), Terele Pávez (Regula), Alfredo Landa (Paco), Juan Sachez (Quirce), Belén Ballesteros (Nieves), Susana Sáanchez (the little girl), Agustín González (Don Pedro), Ágata Lys (Doña Pura), Juan Diego (Iván), Mary Carrillo (the marquise)
A train, coming from the right, pulls up in a station. A few passengers go down, including a group of soldiers, walking from the right to the left of the screen. They soon part ways, the bulk of the group moving one way while a lone soldier keeps walking to the left of the screen, closer to the bottom of the screen now, followed by the camera which then keeps shooting him as he crosses a street and enters a bar, moves around, still from the right to the left, the opposite way Western eyes read and are invited to watch. But in this case, the camera insists on casting the thin and sullen young man as a contrarian, a lonely guy going his own way.
If he features in the film’s first sequence, he is not the first character to come on screen: the titles were preceded by a prologue set in the wild, with an eccentric man, much older and much dirtier, hopping and scurrying across the woods, observing birds, and visibly getting observed by them, a series of shots with a grotesque and disturbing edge, which turn out to be part of a longer sequence showing hunters in the midst of their chase for birds, the old man being their assistant.
The two characters are relatives: the young man, Quirce, is the nephew of the old one, Azarías, the brother of Quirce’s mother, Regula. They have been forced to live together with the rest of Quirce’s family, his mom, Paco the father and husband, Nieves the first sister, and the last child Regula and Paco had, a retarded and crippled little girl, because the landowner Azarías had worked for ever since he was a kid dismissed him.
“Los santos inocentes – The Holy Innocents” is the chronicle of the life of these peasants, handled through flashbacks, slowly revealing what happened to them till Quirce and Nieves left their relatives, in moves that are easy to explain – the brother has probably made his military service, unless he signed up to be in the army for some time, while his sister has chosen to be an industrial worker in a bigger town rather than to stay a maid in rich country estates – but are left to the audience’s ability to deduct: these key moves are left off the screen. The moment when Quirce starts to remember, the starting point of the flashback-based narrative, as he has left the bar to wait for his sister, leaning against a wall, is obviously distant from most of the memories that would come on-screen, not only from Quirce’s mind, but, later, also from Nieves’s mind, Paco’s mind, and last but not least, Azarías’s mind, but it is hard to reckon how much time elapsed. What the meandering collection of memories eventually points to is an extraordinary, shocking tragedy, which changed the life of this family forever – in a final revelation, it appears that not only Quirce and Nieves moved out, but all of them.
Details – cars, fashion, photographs – point to the 1960s era, and the place is the Extremadura region: such were the choices of the famous novelist Miguel Delibes whose eponymous book is adapted by filmmaker Manuel Camus. The topic is clear, dealt with in a frontal and unforgiving manner: the inferior and humiliating status of the peasants who are paid to tend the vast expanses of lands of socially powerful landowners. The film depicts the depressingly patronizing attitudes of the wealthy, who are dreadfully arrogant and feel unashamedly entitled to their rights. Coming back on her estate to celebrate at the local church her grandson’s first communion, the landowner Paco and his relatives depend upon, an old marquise, would on the day of the ritual appear on a balcony of the mansion to get greeted by the peasants on her payroll, huddled at a distance, shouting their best wishes, the lady solemnly waving her hand back to them and uttering a few kind, condescending words, an image scathingly reminiscent of the way dictators acknowledge a crowd who has been especially invited to watch them and to hail them – indeed, a close-up earlier pointed that among the objects hastily put in the room she is to occupy, as maids hurry to clean up and polish, there is a photograph of Spain’s paramount leader Francisco Franco.
The peasants have little leeway and cannot have much expectations. At first, Paco and Regula are glad to learn that Don Pedro, the estate’s manager, has decided to bring them back from the lost, hilly patch of land where they were looking after sheep and grass, to settle them in the house standing against the mansion’s gates. But they soon find out that he has decided that Quirce would give a hand to other workers while Nieves would be the maid of Don Pedro’s wife, Doña Pura – contrary to what they hoped, their kids would never go to the secondary school: peasants’ children do not need to further their education. The need to modernize, and more conspicuously and cunningly, the need to prove that modernization is on foot, have enabled the parents to get a modicum of an education – so, when a foreign guest depicts Spain as a nation of illiterate poor, Iván, a relative of the marquise, summons Paco, Regula, and another peasant, to show they can sign their names so he can proudly humbles the guest. Whatever Quirce knows is the fruit of the nightly courses his father struggled to teach him, as the first of his memories shows, and the same goes for Nieves. Their masters would never allow things to go further. And they would never provide more support than squalid houses and meager wages: Regula must cope with her little daughter’s harrowing condition alone, and must also look after Azarías, whose master haughtily reminds Paco his estate is no asylum.
A dirty idiot who wipes his hands with his urine to keep them warm in the cold of the winter, his smile spoiled forever by carious teeth, his body clad in the same worn and patched clothes, Azarías blunders, botches his chores, and brings just more troubles to Paco. However, he likes to take care of the little girl and is able to quiet her down when she has terrible fits which causes her to howl in a barely human voice (it sounds more like a monstrous animal). And crucially, he loves birds, especially when he has been able to tame them. He deeply mourns the horned owl he had as a companion for hunting, when he was still at his master’s home; he gladly and fervently tames another bird at Paco’s new home, a bird that he keeps calling a horned owl but which looks decidedly like a raven. Though Quirce sympathizes with him, most are rattled by Azarías, who can easily be dismissed as a non-entity, a pathetic medical case, an old rag to put in a bin. But he does have feelings, does experience enthusiasm as well as pain in the most moving manner, does have connections with the wider world, certainly nature, which a gorgeous cinematography exalts.
Birds, the conventional symbol of freedom, the passion of Azarías, the target of the wealthy men’s hunting parties, fill the film’s last shot, actually a POV shot from Quirce, as he walks through an arch, right at the center of the composition, coming towards the camera and the audience. He has just left the asylum where Azarías is now confined. The poignant meeting is the reunion between two men from different generations and backgrounds who proved rebellious. Iván complained Quirce was always obeying his orders grudgingly, pointedly refusing money, a sign, he sighed to another guest, a minister, that the boy was disrespectful and unaware of the import and virtue of social hierarchies. What Azarías could rightly complain about was the vicious, offhanded way Iván shot dead his beloved raven, out of spite, because that day he did not kill any game and Azarías’s help was useless. Stirred by raw emotion and a basic, unrefined sense of justice, the idiot would the next day hang Iván, a simple and shocking execution that turned the world upside down.
One is shaped by a primitive temperament and an elementary bond with nature while the other, clearly proud and stubborn, has thought things over and watched the world changing – once relieved from his military service, Quirce grabs the opportunity to work in a garage in Madrid. Both have sensed what Iván, wrapped in his class conscience and utter lack of morality and principles (the way he cheats on Don Pedro with Doña has been telling), could not have ever imagined. His much vaunted social hierarchies, the overweening power of the elite over the people, the safety brought by class and land can be transient, and are just a part of life. Nature, with its free creatures and sheer beauty, is above this distorted human world, and blessed be the idiot who can connect to the life streaming in the wild. Modernity, with its brutal dislocations and sheer novelty, can usher in a new world, at least offer fresh prospects, and lucky is the young man who can take the risk. As Quirce watches for the last time, in silence, his uncle, now deprived of freedom and nature, turned a complete retarded, crippled old man, the film just emphasizes the bond both have, the brave leap over a conservative and unfair society they have taken.
The saddest aspect of the narrative lies in the shepherd’s shack where Paco and Regula have been exiled again. Now limping, after breaking twice his leg while assisting a ruthless and selfish Iván in his hunting games (he compels the peasant to take part to a hunt despite the doctor’s warning), Paco is rejected by his son (symbolically, Quirce would not eat the birds his dad shot for a lunch), while Regula, whose eyesight has worsened, still mourns the little girl. They are now on the fringe of the world, lonely and poor, the bitter price for a life spent in toiling and accepting submissively the social order. They remain crushed by a society they did not dare to defy or distrust.