Los Santos Inocentes Analysis Essay
For whatever reason, I have always found it difficult to fathom that a civilized European nation lived under a dictator until 1978. My friend Raúl Ansola tells me that the flourishing of Spanish art in the 1980s is a direct result of the democracy that emerged after Franco’s death in 1978, and that Spanish films benefited from the loosening of the state censorship under Franco’s regime. You can feel a kind of sigh, a loosening of the belt, in Mario Camus’s Los Santos Inocentes (1984), from the 1982 novel by Miguel Delibes. While the subject matter is relentlessly grim, there is a sense that the filmmakers were relieved to be able to show things as they really were—nothing is sugar-coated, nothing is evaded. The family at the heart of Los Santos Inocentes suffers, and the viewer suffers along with them, and yet it is as though the very act of speaking, of saying the truth, is redemptive enough to make the pain worthwhile.
The film concerns Paco (the excellent Alfredo Landa) and his wife Régula (the equally brilliant Terele Pávez), who work on the estate of a rich Extremaduran family headed by the odious but occasionally charming Iván (Juan Diego). They have three children, the handsome Quirce (Juan Sachez), the quiet but fiercely observant Nieves (Belén Ballesteros), and a severely mentally and physically handicapped younger daughter, called only “Tiny Girl” (Susana Sánchez). Joining the group is Régula’s mentally slow brother Azarías, played with heartbreaking simplicity and sweetness by Francisco Rabal. The brilliantly structured narrative gives four of these family members—Quirce, Nieves, Paco and Azarías—a piece of the story, a section from what is essentially their point of view, and it details the slow and painful decline of this very dignified family as they struggle to make the most of what life has thrown at them. Paco is slavishly devoted to the horrid Iván, despite the fact that he is treated by his master as little more than a dog; at one point, in his attempt to aid his master with his birding, he gets down on all fours and sniffs the ground, claiming to be able to detect the scent of a shot and wounded partridge—apparently it works, for said partridge is soon retrieved. Régula, when in the presence of her masters, almost always says some variation of “We are here to serve,” and her deference and quiet calm are almost uncanny—nothing seems able to break this woman’s stoic reserve. Their children Quirce and Nieves leave home over the course of the story, but both are so quiet, so uncommunicative that one wonders just how much growing up in such an environment has damaged them for life—they might physically get away from the scene of the crime, but the psychological damage has been done. Azarías has a gift and facility with birds, and over the course of the film raises a young bird from infancy and trains it to respond to his calls. He’s a bit of an embarrassment to the family, for he tends to rub his hands in his own urine when he pees outdoors (he claims that it keeps his hands from getting chapped), and he shits on the lawn of the estate, until Paco decides to start taking him out on horseback at night so that he can take care of this business in the dark and under the cover of trees. That said, the family also staunchly defends him, especially the often-exasperated Régula, who nevertheless looks at him with deep and abiding love.
The family in the manor house is interesting, for they are not portrayed in the manner I was expecting. Iván has moments, as I said above, of considerable charm. But ultimately his selfishness and brutishness outweigh any kind of sympathy I had for him. This is the kind of man who is so concerned with his own performance at hunting that he requires Paco, in a horribly painful series of scenes, to act as his second with a severely broken leg. And yet, he can look with concern at Paco, whom he has known all his life, after all. Played with more consistent coarseness are Don Pedro (Agustín González) and his slutty, lazy wife Purita (Ágata Lys), who is having an affair with Iván. Visiting the house for a First Communion is the Señora Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), who looks like an old, bleached-blond Anaïs Nin and who is so imperious that she terrified me on sight. She doles out cash to the servants, who stand timidly in line and pay her compliments; while she says some nice things to Régula, I was waiting for her to do something vicious. She never quite does, but her presence left me very uneasy; one can only guess what the servants thought while she was around. In one horrible moment, the servants all stand under the Señora’s balcony and call out compliments, while she stands, Evita-like, looking down at them.
The most striking thing about Los Santos Inocentes is the calm manner in which Paco and his family seem to accept their fate. There is no breast-beating, no hand-wringing, no late-night, candlelit conversations about how much they wish things were different. These are people who are surviving, striving to get through with as much grace and dignity as possible. They don’t seem to have any concept of yearning for something more. Perhaps they’ve realized they’re just never going to get it, so why hope? Early in the film they move from a small, dilapidated shack to a slightly larger dilapidated shack. It’s heartbreaking to see Quirce and Nieves so mesmerized by a single, functional lightbulb—they turn it on and off, entranced. This is a film with a striking soundtrack: the music, by Antón García Abril, is stunning, alternating between a frenetic drumbeat to end each character’s section and an incredibly sad violin piece; the soundtrack is often pierced by loud sounds—the pitiful screaming of “Tiny Girl,” Azarías’s joyful shouts of “Hey!” to owls he sees in the trees. Visually, the film takes place mostly outdoors, with a bleak but often beautiful landscape to counter and sometimes augment the actions of the characters. The acting is simply stunning—there’s not a bad performance in the piece, and Landa and Rabal shared the top acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I don’t want to say anything else about the plot, but suffice it to say that there are several moments of gut-wrenching sadness—images of some of these characters’ faces will be with me for a very long time.
Again, there’s something affirming in all of the sadness in Los Santos Inocentes—affirmation that a time would come when these stories could be told, affirmation that bad people do in fact often get what’s coming to them, affirmation that despite everything, at the end, Paco and Régula are still standing, and still have each other, after losing so much else.
Los santos inocentes (The Holy Innocents) (1984)
Director: Mario Cumas.
Starring: Alfredo Landa (Paco, El Bajo), Terele Pávez (Régula), Belén Ballesteros (Nieves), Juan Sachez (Quirce), Susana Sánchez (La Niña Chica), Francisco Rabal (Azarías), Ágata Lys (Doña Pura), Agustín González (Don Pedro), Juan Diego (Señorito Iván), Mary Carrillo (Señora Marquesa), José Guardiola (Señorito de la Jara), Manuel Zarzo (Don Manuel, el doctor).
a critical look at the terrible inequality in the Spanish country life of the 1960s
In an army uniform, Quirce gets off the train at Zafra station. He goes into a restaurant for a coffee. As he sits, he writes a letter to his sister Nieves.
Nieves is working in a factory. There she gets the letter.
Flashback. The father Paco is teaching his son Quirce and his daughter Nieves how to read. Paco tells his wife Ragula that Nieves is very bright, but the boy is struggling a bit. They have another child: a little girl they call "tiny girl" who is terribly mentally handicapped. At night tiny girl screams a horrifying scream and keeps on screaming. Ragula gets up and goes to comfort her child.
Azarias is the brother of Ragula. He is just staying for awhile, they hope.
The rich people are out shooting birds. Azarias is being used to fetch the downed birds of his master. He stops to take a piss and while doing this, he pisses on his hands. (He says he does this so his hands won't become chapped.) Azarias has a pet owl that he carries around with him in a cage. He calls his owl Kite.
Sr. Pedro tells Paco that one day they will have him and his family up to the house. After all, he says: "You've been at 'Raya' long enough."
Azarias discovers that his owl is ill. He runs over to the master's house and bangs on a window. Young master comes out and listen to Azarias tell about his owl. The young master doesn't want to hear about his owl. He goes back inside. Azarias hears the people laughing inside and he figures they are laughing at him. He doesn't like this.
Paco and his family load up a cart with their belongings. They are moving to the estate of Sr. Pedro. Paco tells Ragula that her brother is coming. Azarias comes carrying the dead owl with him. He buries the bird while crying over it.
The family moves into a small, simple house, but at least this place has electricity in it. Sr. Pedro comes over to tell Paco and Ragula their duties. He sees Nieves and tells her parents that he wants her to work in the main house for his wife Purita. The parents say that they wanted their child to go to school. But, no, Sr. Pedro wants the girl to work for his wife. Paco and Ragula just look at each other as if they are saying what can we possibly do about it?
In public Azarias just pisses any time and any where he feels the urge. Again, with the urine on the hands. Then he goes home and asks Ragula to fetch tiny girl so he can hold her. She is reluctant to do so, but she does give her tiny girl to her brother. She then asks him how long is he going to be staying with them? He says his master fired him. Why? Because he is old.
Paco goes to see the young master. The master says that he fired Azarias because of his nasty habit of peeing on his hands. It's disgusting and it indicates that the man is off in the head. Paco pleads for mercy saying that Azarias grew up here. On St. Eutiquious, the man will be 61 years old. Young master says if he has kept the man on for 61 years, then he deserves some kind of award for putting up with him for so long.
Ragula chases Azarias way from putting still more manure around blooming flowers that don't need any more fertilizer on them.
And now Azarias stops wherever he is in public and defecates. When Paco sees this, he has to pick it up with a shovel on the double. He doesn't want to have the young master seeing it. The family believes that Azarias is more trouble for them than even tiny girl. And the poor man can't even count numbers anymore.
Paco tells his wife that master Ivan will be here soon. At a very young age the two, a boy and a man, started going hunting together. Paco would set up a trapped pigeon in a tree tiedto a string. When birds would fly over, they would be attracted down by the moving pigeon (jiggled by Paco, the "underling").
Quirce finds a young crow and gives it to his uncle to raise it.
Back to the present. Quirce watches as his sister Nieves comes out from the factory where she works. Quirce tells her: "I hardly recognize you." She tells her brother that tiny girl died. Quirce gets on a bus. He told his sister that he wants to work in Madrid.
Flashback. Nieves goes to work in the house of Purita, who tells her that she will do the cleaning in the house and will cook for her husband.
Paco talks with his son about the year 1943, during the beating, on Racial Day, when everyone was amazed at the shooting abilities of the young Ivancito. He says Invacito was an incredible hunter.
Master Ivan arrives and is greeted by his brother Sr. Pedro. Pedro and his wife are planning a big celebration. The Marchioness, the elder lady of the estate, is also coming back. She, like the others, will attend the holy communion of Pedro's and Purita's son. Ivan tells Pedro that his wife is not coming to the event. He adds that Paco is off today, because he is coming with him. He shouts for Paco and Paco comes running. They greet one another and then Ivan gets in his jeep and starts it up. Paco stands on the runner of the jeep on the driver side and off they go hunting.
Ragula tells her brother to take a bath. He is giving tiny girl fleas. The two exchange one or two word insults with each other.
Purita is a good-looking woman and her husband is suspicious of her. Pedro sees her on the second floor looking out to where Ivan is out hunting. Later the three of them have dinner together. Ivan asks Pedro to go out and tell the organ-player to stop practicing for the special event. He says he wants to go to sleep. When Pedro is gone, Purita and Ivan kiss.
Outside Pedro notices that someone just zipped by him. He goes to check the situation out and finds Azarias in the barn getting seeds for his crow. Pedro hits Azarias a couple of times with his cane before Azarias can run out of the barn.
In the main house Ragula and Nieves are busing cleaning the house. On one of the tables there is a photo of the Spanish dictator Franco. Pedro comes in and tells them, along with the rest of the staff, that the Marchioness is arriving at noon and everything has to be ready for her arrival. After he leaves, Nieves tells her mother that there was trouble in the house last night. Master Pedro threatened to cane his wife. Ragula tells her to mind her own business.
The entire family of the master and the entire staff is outside waiting for the arrival of the Marchioness. A table is set up outside for the Marchioness and her grandson. The servants line up and she gives them some money to celebrate her return to the estate and then the grandson gives each one some money to celebrate his communion.
Inside the house the Marchioness notices Nieves hard at work. She asks her daughter (?) Miriam what she thinks of Nieves? She says she has too much on top, but otherwise she seems fine. Her mother says that with some more training, Nieves could become a very good maid. Pedro wants to keep Nieves, so he asks that the Marchioness not steal any of his staff.
The Marchioness and Miriam take a walk. The Marchioness tells Ragula to clean up her place, because it stinks. Ragula is very obedient and always says the obsequious thing to her "betters". The three of them run into Azarias and after talking with him for a little while, the Marchioness tells Ragula that he should be in an asylum. Ragula says she's not having anyone in her family stay in an asylum. She says that her brother is just a bit "innocent" in the head. Azarias wants to show the pretty Miriam his crow, so he grabs her by the hand and pulls her after him. While Miriam looks at the bird, tiny girl lets out a series of terrible screams. Miriam is shocked. Azarias explains its just tiny girl and he takes Miriam into the house to see her. When Miriam comes out of the house she seems even a bit more shocked than she did when she first heard the screams. She returns to her mother and tells Ragula: "I'm sorry."
Purita and Ivan return to the estate by car a little late, since the communion has already started. Pedro is mad and when he gets his wife alone, he tells her: "You slut!" He is about to hit her, but he catches himself. At the big dinner, everyone seems so quiet. The silence is broken by the staff and their families who have gathered outside to shout out their wish that "her ladyship" have a long life. The Marchioness comes out on the patio to wave to the people and tell them thank you.
All the guests are now leaving in their automobiles. A photographer stops to take a photograph of Paco and family in front of his home. Azarias's crow flies off his shoulder and Azarias runs after the bird. He gets close enough to the crow to be able to call it to him. The crow flies over and lands on his left shoulder.
Back to the present. The dog suddenly runs off barking all the way. Paco knows that this is a sign that Quirce is coming home. He is in his army uniform. Ragula says that they are all alone here in the house. Quirce threads a needle for his mother who is definitely getting older. He now asks what happened to tiny girl? On the day of her death, tiny girl screamed all day long. At night she died in her sleep.
Paco, el Bajo
Flashback. Ivan and Paco are out hunting. Ivan is really knocking the birds out of the sky. He shoots 40 of them. Paco is so good that he can remember where all 40 birds are. After the firing has stopped, the underlings go out and gather up the birds. One of the underlings, Facundo, picks up one of Ivan's birds. Paco mentions this to Ivan and Ivan gets really mad and balls out Facundo. Facundo gives Paco the bird in question and then Paco literally sniffs along the ground like a birddog until he knows the direction in which the bird went. He tells Facundo go to out to a certain area and he will find his mater's bird. Facundo does so and retrieves the bird in question.
Ivan is having a discussion at the dinner table with a "left-wing" ambassador. He wants to prove his point that there are no more illiterate people like there were in 1936 when Franco took power. He calls in Paco and Ragula and a fellow named Ceferino. He has each of them write their names down on a piece of paper. He then gives the paper to the ambassador to check. Ivan was annoyed by the ambassador's criticisms of Spain under Franco.
Azarias runs around in the forest repeating his call to an owl he is familiar with. The owl hoots back at Azarias's hollers.
Ivan and Paco are out hunting. Paco climbs up a tree but falls off from a high branch. Ivan is very annoyed saying that Paco almost landed on him. Paco says that his right leg is broken. He says he felt the bone break. Ivan's comment is only: "What a nuisance!" He asks poor Paco who will tie his pigeon to the tree now? Paco mentions his son Quirce or his brother-in-law. Ivan does nothing about getting Paco to a doctor. A little later he asks Paco: "Are you sure you can't move, Paco?" Yes, he's sure. So Ivan calls Quirce over to serve as his underling.
When Ivan shoots, he doesn't hit anything. He complains that he has never missed so many pigeon as he did today, as if that was the fault of Paco and his son.
The doctor confirms that the leg is broken. He tells Ivan that he will have to find another underling. Paco will need 45 days in plaster to heal completely.
Ivan drives Paco home. Paco's son and brother-in-law help him into the house, but Ivan immediately calls Paco over to him to ask him if Azarias could be his underling?
Ivan has the nerve to come over to Paco to try to get him to stand up. He says: "You must try, even if it hurts." He tells him to "have guts" and "make an effort". Paco does try, but he really can't do it.
The day of the big hunting contest arrives. In bed, early in the morning, Paco hears a car pull up at his home. It is none other than Ivan who tells Paco to get up. He is being a absolute jerk by using Paco as his underling. Ragula asks Ivan to be careful with her husband, but she does not try to stop Ivan.
During the hunt, Ivan hurries out to pick up the birds, but he soon goes down in pain. He says he broke his leg again. Ivan wants him to get up and try again because the minister is five birds ahead of him.
Back to the present. We see Paco now without the crutches, but he seems to have a limp. Quirce leaves without saying goodbye to his father. Paco looks at Ragula as if he is asking what happened? Quirce takes a package from Ragula to his uncle in the asylum. The gift is a crucifix.
Flashback. The doctor comes out to see Paco. Ivan is there but he complains only about who is going to come out with him, Paco's son or his brother-in-law. Quirce is good, says Paco, but Ivan doesn't want him because the young man is not very talkative.
With his rich friends and family, Ivan complains how the young people these days have little respect for authority. He says he tried to give Quirce a tip for being his underling, but the young guy wouldn't take the money from him. He tells his friends and family that they all must accept hierarchy.
Pedro asks Ragula if his wife went out with Ivan in his car? Did she hide in the back seat under covers of some sort? Ragula just keeps repeating that she only saw master Ivan, that's all.
Ivan comes back and again has nerve enough to say something thoughtless to Paco. This time Ivan says: "I bet you don't have the guts to come out."
Ivan uses Azarias as his underling. Ivan doesn't have any luck and he is angry. He quits hunting for the day. As he and Azarias head back home, Azarias sees his crow flying by. He calls his bird to his shoulder and the crow starts its descent to that perch. Ivan lifts up his gun to shoot and Azarias clearly tells him not to fire because this particular bird is his bird. Ivan doesn't care. He blasts the crow. Azarias cries over his dead crow. The insensitive and arrogant Ivan tells him that he will get Ivan another bird. After all, there are always plenty of birds around. He says he shot the crow because he was just so angry after not having gotten any birds today.
Tiny girl screams bloody murder. Azarias says she screams because master Ivan killed his Kite.
Azarias goes out as an underling with Ivan again. While Ivan starts complaining about no birds, Azarias in the tree lowers a rope loop down around the rich man's head. When it lands around Ivan's neck, Azarias pulls the noose tight and then he pulls on the rope and lefts Ivan off the ground. Ivan slowly chokes to death.
Back to the present. In the asylum, as Quirce watches his uncle, Azarias keeps repeating: "Pretty Kite. Pretty Kite. Pretty Kite." Quircis leaves.
Spoiler Warning: Good movie. It makes you feel so sorry for the virtual peasants who work for the "lords of the manor" as if these were not the 1960s but the 1260s. It's disgusting how these people are treated by their "betters". The peasants didn't like any of their masters, except for Paco who really liked master Ivan, because they had made such a good team at hunting various types of birds and Ivan had won many hunting competitions with the help of Paco. Paco and Ivan are very happy to see each other when they reunite for the first communion of Ivan's nephew. But as the story proceeds the veneer of camaraderie and respect of Ivan slowly reveals itself as a mere veneer or a mask that easily comes off in bad weather. Ivan is so callous and disrespectful of those that are below him that he would willingly kill Paco by putting him into situations where he could easily end up dead. The man has no heart at all for poor Paco and for his family who depend upon him. I kept asking myself if this Ivan was crazy, because again and again he made Paco risk rebreaking his leg just so master Ivan can win a hunting contest.
Master Ivan also seems to have no respect for any life form. He doesn't care what kinds of birds he kills, as long as they fall dead on the ground. The ending is such sweet revenge. The crazed Azarias slips that rope around the neck of the totally unsuspecting Ivan and hauls him up off the ground so master Ivan would slowly strangle to death.
The Marchioness is liked more than most of the wealthy people, but she has this feudalistic noblesse oblige form of patronization. In other works, she's a queen who throws breadcrumbs to the poor to "take care of" her poor, stupid, helpless subjects. None of the wealthy are really presented as decent people. They live too much in a too wealthy of an environment and themselves are like children, spoiled brats with a nasty supportive ideology that justifies their actions.
Hey, but what could expect for a fascist dictatorship run by a man who was once a General in the military? You know or should have known it wouldn't be a pretty picture.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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