A young girl in northern Spain is fascinated by her father’s mysterious past and his childhood in the pre-civil-war south. Spain’s enigmatic master Victor Erice has completed only three features since 1973, but each one is an exquisite masterpiece. El Sur is the second of these, a film which endured torrid production difficulties and a troubled distribution history – but whose power and beauty endures.
Originally intended to be three-hour feature with a second half set in southern Spain, funding was pulled from the production when the film’s producer Elías Querejeta declared himself satisfied with a workprint prepared for the Cannes Film Festival. This is essentially the cut that we know today, which has been absent from home video since its theatrical release in 1982. While it’s tempting to imagine the film an uninterrupted Erice could have delivered, Querejeta’s intervention at least bestows the ‘El Sur’ of the title with a mythical quality enhanced by its absence. And the film is a masterpiece nonetheless, studded with moments of haunting beauty and immaculately constructed compositions. Pedro Almodovar chose the film in a selection of great Spanish works screened at BFI Southbank, and he said of it: “95 minutes of emotions so intense that you’re left breathless. I cry every time I watch it.”