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GROWING UP CREEPY, The Films of Ana Torrent

By Ian Deleón
January 18, 2024

If you were to look up film stills from 1973’s The Spirit of the Beehive, the majority of the images you would first encounter would be of the seven-year-old lead Ana Torrent, making her screen debut as the sensitive and precocious character Ana in Victor Erice’s Spanish drama masterpiece, set in the 1940s.
In this film and others to follow, the slippage between the character and the actor feels quite loose. Ana, with her dark, wide open, and dewy eyes recalls Daniel Kaluuya’s paralyzed character Chris falling into “the sunken place” of Get Out (2017). Ana likewise sinks into her characters, deploying a style of acting so naturalistic that filmmakers themselves have capitalized on these congruities to form an almost thematic continuum amongst some of her biggest films.

In Beehive, Ana is luminous and incorrigibly curious. Living at the borderlands of Spain’s Republican defeat and Francoist future. The majority of characters around her are dejected, caught between a liminal space of their own making: her father, the feeble academic beekeeper; her mother the hopeless pen-pal of a distant lover; and her slightly older
sister, whose burgeoning sexuality beguiles and excludes Ana.

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Ana herself is concerned primarily with looking. She is a prime example of that classic aphorism, that “children should be seen and not heard”. But Ana quickly learns to weaponize her creeping silence. When a mobile cinema comes to her village, Ana joins dozens of her neighbors in watching Universal’s classic Frankenstein (1931). Her large, moist eyes, as reflective as ponds on summer evenings, are glued to the screen and afterwards, they are as if she has “ceased to look at anything in particular and is looking at the world.” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)
Entranced by the images of Frankenstein’s monster fatally interacting with the little girl by the lake, Ana fittingly recreates this sub-narrative when she discovers a wounded Republican soldier hiding out in a desolate sheepfold which her sister Isabel had said was the home of a monster. A profound and complex relationship develops between these two outcasts, one that mirrors Frankenstein in the interplay between spiritual innocence and worldly maturity, but differs in that it is the Republican soldier who is sacrificed for the folly of their friendship, and Ana who suffers and is ultimately hunted down by the torch-bearing villagers.

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A few years later and now ten-year-old Ana Torrent is once again playing a young girl, simply called Ana in 1976’s Cría Cuervos by Carlos Saura. The Spanish title refers to the first part of an old proverb, “raise ravens… and they’ll pluck your eyes out”. This brings to light a few of the primary concerns of the film, namely the themes of seeing/witnessing, and revenge.
Ana in Cuervos may as well be a spiritual cousin to the character Ana of Beehive.

 

This girl has seen too much, and before she has the language to discuss and confront what she has seen, she has decided to act. With her skulking back to the silent walls of her Fascist father’s home, Ana is a voyeur to several powerful and damaging “primal scenes”, her father’s undisguised infidelity, and her mother’s resulting debilitating illness.
In taking revenge, Ana, who is convinced she was able to poison her father to death, has enacted the well-known Oedipal fantasy of patricide. But the sexual conquest of the deceased mother is not her concern here. Instead, Ana and her sisters reenact troubling family dramas, donning their parents’ clothing and embodying their most painful moments. In the dramatization, Ana, though not the oldest sibling, portrays her father, implying a deeper connection than inter-family dynamics of power.

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In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva poses the question: am I “afraid of being bitten” or am I “afraid of biting”? She goes on to underscore the Freudian conclusion that Oedipal fantasies and childhood development were not a cause-and-effect machine, but rather, part of a complex network of “infantile, perverse, polymorphic sexuality” that already carried a want for desire and death. If fear does hide aggression, as Kristeva suggests, then the locus of Ana’s revolt is not simply a vindication of the cuckolded mother, but a fierce assertion of her sexual awakening in the face of her father’s crude exploration of his own. There is a productive aspect of jealousy here that leads us nicely into the next phase of Ana Torrent’s cinematic career.
In Tesis (1996), a now thirty-year-old Ana plays Ángela, a university student struggling to articulate the parameters of her graduate thesis on the impact of audiovisual violence on the nuclear family. Her research is given a burst of life when, on the subway, Ana’s train is stopped after an unknown person commits suicide along the tracks. As an audience, we never see the grisly aftermath, and neither does Ángela, but that is precisely what she longs to do.

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She channels this urge into her work, befriending fellow cinephile and gore enthusiast “Chema” to help her source snuff films (actual depictions of death on screen). What follows is a fascinating dive into the realms of extreme imagery and underground cinema, sprinkled with an engaging whodunit narrative involving a murdered professor and missing women. But the real engine of the film is once again Ángela’s awakening. What at first can be seen as a fairly performative, pearl-clutching attempt at repulsion and the preservation of her middle-class values, gradually blossoms into a palpable pull towards what is happening on screen.


Similar to James Woods’ character “Max Renn” in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Ángela identifies so strongly with the in-camera violence and the surrender of these victims that there emerges a perverse desire to become the mediated violence, prompting fantasies of cosplaying as both victim and victimizer in ever entwined reveries of subjecthood-objecthood
dialectics. This flirtation with feelings of excitement and exclusion are the hallmarks of abjection. Where a child-adult such as “Ana”/”Ángela” experiences participation envy as well as scopophilia impotence in the face of the “overwhelming unknown” (Otto Fenichel), the artist Ana Torrent emerges as a singular adept of what makes a young actor appear creepy on screen. That which “[D]isturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules”–– what approaches the human, while appearing all altogether separate and other-worldly to the rest of us, this is the nature of abjection, of creepiness, of horror.

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Having begun with Ana’s film debut at the age of seven, it is only fitting to conclude by coming full circle, with 2014’s La Ropavejera by Nacho Ruipérez, where Ana, now credited pointedly as “Mother” assumes the role of an early twentieth-century killer of infants and young girls at a house of pleasure. Filled with peepholes and whispered secrets, the film
plays up familiar Torrent territory by emphasizing the role of seeing/watching in childhood development, sexuality, and often, the death drive. In the short, which echoes feature-length explorations such as Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960), voyeurism and sex appear inextricably linked with the filmmaking process itself, not to mention its exhibition, where
consumption cannot be divorced from participation.


Ana, as “Mother” has created a house of horrors full of young women who dream of either murdering her or emulating her. Similarly, with her large body of work, the creepy kid that was Ana Torrent has left audiences with a toy chest full of nightmares from which we must choose to either be bitten or bite back!

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Ian Deleón (he/him) is a writer, director, editor, and performer based in Los Angeles, CA. His work is informed by the warmth of a multicultural upbringing in the tropics and the icy demeanor of a lifetime steeped in the surreal and grotesque. His first major narrative work, Velvet Cry was screened nationally and received numerous commendations for its excellence in production design and montage. Ian was recently awarded a Master's Degree in Screenwriting + Film Studies from Hollins University, where his thesis project focused on the Hollywood life of early-talkies Mexican starlet Lupita Tovar.

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