The first shot, the girl’s darkened room leisurely coming to life at the break of dawn (creeping sunlight, barking dog, some commotion faintly heard beyond the frame), is a wondrous display of Vermeer gradations that establishes the ensuing work as a memory-projection "directed" by the young protagonist as "a very intense image that I had in reality invented." Spain in the 1950s is a house divided, not just along Civil War lines but also between the family’s northern rural manor and the mythical south of Seville, movies, and other El Dorados. Estrella the celestial beholder, as a child (Sonsoles Aranguren) and a teenager (Icíar Bollaín), trying to make sense of the chiaroscuro world around her: "I grew up more or less like everyone else, getting used to being alone and not thinking too much about happiness." The father (Omero Antonutti) is a fellow withdrawn dreamer, adored and disturbed and lost in a reverie of his own, enthralled by the starlet (Aurore Clément) who once flickered on the screen at the local theater. Victor Erice envisioned a lengthier venture and got the Stroheim treatment, the half that remains is nevertheless exquisitely lucid and tender about childhood's shifting emotional spaces. As in Spirit of the Beehive, cinema sculpts identity -- to follow that film’s Frankenstein monster of half-obscured, emergent perceptions, there is a melancholy web of dislocated doubles and paradises lost, glowing with enchantment yet aware of the need to question that enchantment. (Another work about idols with clay feet, a certain La Sombra de una Duda, is advertised at the Cine Arcadia.) Erice understands the role the senses play in Proustian memory, a whiff of spearmint, the tap of a cane on a wooden floor, the movement of a paso doble are all woven together for a sense of life lived and recalled. A whispering, truly calligraphic camera. Cinematography by José Luis Alcaine. With Lola Cordona, Rafaela Aparicio, Francisco Merino, and Maria Caro.
--- Fernando F. Croce