Time is the material from which films are made. There is no filmmaker more aware of this truth than Víctor Erice. His films, often cited – yet sadly not so widely seen – work both through and with time. They all, from the shortest to the longest, from the most straightforwardly linear to the more complicated articulations, succeed in their undertaking to broaden perceptions of temporality: perhaps the most obvious example being Alumbramento which in a mere ten minutes is able to encapsulate, in the instant in which a baby sees the light of day, the life of an entire community. This is down to the editing, of course, but is also his signature approach, drawing from life that profundity which is necessary to give a wider resonance to the images. Perhaps this is why Erice’s films manage to make something that is universal from very particular stories. This is the case with his dazzling debut feature El Espiritu de la colmena(The Spirit of the Beelive): set in the circumscribed world of a remote little village in the Castilla plain, the film opens with the shock of impact when a sensitive young girl encounters James Whale’s “Frankenstein”. Made in 1973, the film is set in the 1940s, in the aftermath of the Civil War. The same period featured in his next feature, El Sur (1983), a film that was never finished, although it was screened – against the director’s will – at Cannes. Made some ten years after the first, this film also projects itself into the past. Its female protagonist and narrative voice remembers the mysterious figure who was her father. The film ends just before the journey to the south, promised in the title, is about to begin. It was there that Erice had wanted to film the entire second part of a film which, even in its unfinished state, still retains intact the power of a narrative structure – in which remembering plays a central role – and a poetic, visionary dimension that matches that of El Espiritu de la colmena. Fascinated by the way light can cast a different light on reality, rigorous and lyrical in his editing, Erice finds these characteristics in the painter Antonio López, with whom he made El sol del membrillo (1992). The film, almost in the manner of a nautical logbook, charts the making of a painting, whose subject is a simple quince tree. In the film, which, along with the painting, becomes part of the painter’s daily life, the routes are mapped by various encounters and the variations in light. Here, even more so than in the previous films, time becomes the film’s subject, time as experiential more than simply a measurement of the days passing.
Erice is the film maker who has most influenced the new generation of Spanish filmmakers, who, following in his wake, have sought to go beyond the confines of genre and length to give a unique form to their thinking. In the recent Vidros partidos (2012) it is the essay format: the starting point is an old photograph that frames a silent mass of people in a large refectory in a textile factory. Sitting in front of the snapshot, articulated over the successive days of shooting, we see, almost as if they constituted a cast, a series of men and women who recite a combination of memories and interpretations of their own history with the factory. The film – part of the omnibus project Centro Hístorico – proceeds with this uninterrupted discourse on time and on cinema as vehicles for actualizing memory. In this respect, the wonderful ending, dedicated to the eyes of the workers seen in the photo, is a splendid idea for an ending.
As Erice himself has claimed “The problem in art isn’t just about having ideas, but about how to express them, give them body and life”. Cinematic expression is the equivalent of giving life and body to one’s one ideas, embodying them so as to keep them shot through with the dirty colors of life – in a stratification of markings that may not be visible at first sight but remain beneath the surface. As with the painter López when, to make the painting’s composition stronger, he has no hesitation in jettisoning the work already done, knowing however that all of it is still there. This thought, at one with the photo that Vitros partidos closes on, takes on an almost revolutionary significance in the present digital era. Since when working with time, nothing is written off. But, as in a stream of consciousness, even the most distant memories can suddenly come to light.