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  • In this film, directed in 1982, Carlos Saura deals once again with some of his favorite subjects: Spain during wartime, family matters, suicide, memories. "Sweet Hours" is reminiscent especially of some of the films Saura has directed in the early 70s, "Cousin Angelica" and also to some extent "Cría Cuervos". With a rather complex plot structure, Saura evokes Spain's tormented memories of the Civil War and the years which followed Franco's victory as well as the hidden conflicts which may occur in a family.

    "Each person is an entity made of memories. Even if one doesn't want to, we're made by the past" once stated Saura in an interview. Juan Sahagún (Iñaki Aierra) would certainly agree with this theory. In "Sweet Hours", Juan Sahagún is a writer who often takes refuge in the past. He is tormented by it -- by memories of his elderly father who went off to South America and by memories of his young and beautiful mother who committed suicide in 1942. Therefore he has written an autobiographical play, Sweet Hours, which contains some of the key scenes of his childhood. The play is in rehearsal and Juan attends the sessions, following a regressive and romanticizing impulse to rebuild his own "sweet hours" by slipping in and out of the actors' reconstructions and his own memories. He even falls in love with Berta (Assumpta Serna), the young actress who is rehearsing the role of his mother and who bears a striking resemblance with her. But the past is never quite as attractive as you imagine it. Juan's sister, Marta (Isabel Mestres), feels that her brother idolizes someone who never really deserved unconditional love. In order to dispel her brother's errors, Marta gives him the correspondence between their parents written during the period when their father was in Argentina. Marta is certain that the letters will work as an eye-opener by revealing a domineering and slightly mischievous matriarch who actually drove her husband to abandon her…

    It is a bit strange to see that "Sweet Hours" has fallen into a sort of oblivion today. It was one of the first Spanish films I watched as a teenager, around 1984; I don't think it has been featured on a national TV channel here ever since. As I was learning Spanish at school with a teacher I was very fond of, I guess I was ready to love everything this teacher would show us. I remember that it was quite a challenging film to watch for 15-year-old kids, but Saura was regarded as THE great Spanish director by then (along with Buñuel), Almódovar still being unknown outside Spain at that time. Although "Sweet Hours" is one of the most complex films Saura has written, his narrative strategy is relatively simple: Juan is a grown man in the drama, a pre-teen boy in the flashbacks – but this could be confusing to a not-so-mature audience. Nevertheless, I have always thought that "Sweet Hours" had a charm of his own. Since it is a film I had recorded for my Spanish class, I had kept the videotape so I could watch it again to write this review. The experience proved to be an interesting one as I could compare my memories and what I saw on screen. I think I never perceived right the Oedipal subtext when I first watched the film some 25 years ago, when actually it is quite obvious! As a matter of fact, the mother-son relationship could be the most shocking part of the film to some people, although Saura deals with the theme of incestuous desire in a delicate way. Yet, the film's real subject is the danger of nostalgia. Juan has not only a distorted image of his mother, he also remembers the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War as "the good old days" via the warm recollections of his family. Ironically enough, we soon learn that Juan comes from a Fascist family through scenes in which the Nationalist cause and conservatism are either ridiculed or presented via petty characters, such as Tío Angelito and Juan's grandmother. "Sweet Hours" tells us about Juan's emancipation from nostalgia, yet the whole film can be seen as a metaphor for Spain: the country had to liberate itself from its Fascist past to be able to face its future. For that matter, "Sweet Hours" can be regarded as the last film in a series where Saura uses memories of the Civil Spanish War to depict a bourgeoisie asphyxiated by militarism, sexual taboos and religious fanaticism. After the release of "Sweet Hours", Saura felt free enough to move on with a totally different film on flamenco, "Carmen" -- one of his greatest triumphs.
  • A film one can take on various levels. The overt story is of Juan, a man whose emotions are frozen in his childhood at the point when his beautiful sexy mother, loving the boy too closely after his father abandoned them, took an overdose in front of the hapless child. These traumas he seems unable to leave behind, living in their constant shadow. We know he is trapped, because his practical sister Marta has got on with her life, marrying and having three children while he broods alone.

    The siblings can be seen as two halves of Spanish society. One lives in the present, without any apparent illusions, while the other is mentally in a past he cannot escape. The siege of Madrid, its population short of food and fuel being bombed nightly by the Germans. The absent father, in his case safe in Argentina with another woman. The mother, without any authorised outlet for her desire, who flirts shockingly with her pre- teen son. The unfeeling uncles, one of whom brags of his exploits fighting for the Germans in Russia while the other matter-of-factly takes the boy to his usual brothel for an early initiation.

    Though Juan's mental landscape can be pitied, even if he does rather revel in it, there is a strong temptation to view his search for lost time as comic rather than tragic. What is shown of his prosaic father and over-romantic mother, to say nothing of the somewhat eccentric family surrounding them, might suggest laughter as a response to their woes. After all, they are well-off middle class with a nice Madrid flat and a maid (who lets young Juan feel her breasts for a peseta a time) plus, most important after 1939, are on the victorious Nationalist side. Even his mother's suicide, heartlessly cruel to the boy, is done in an Emma Bovary style of drama.

    The suspicion of black comedy is reinforced at the end when the actress Berta, long unsure how to relate to Juan, works out that she must treat him like a ten-year-old and starts scrubbing him maternally in his bath. He has got his mother back from the dead, pretty and loving and all his!