Top of the Docs #49 – El sol del membrillo (1992)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be exploring documentaries that explore ageing, and the effect it can have on people!

Painting is an art that requires patience. It often takes years to complete a piece of work, and when viewing a painting, it can take time for its affect to fully register with you. This patience  is rewarding, however, and the process of creating the work itself is immensely satisfying. An example of this is the ever-calming mood Bob Ross’ television creates. A similar mood is cast over the opening of Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light), a film that captures Spanish painter Antonio López García attempting to paint a quince tree.

The film opens peacefully, with García preparing for a day’s painting, driving in pegs to mark his stance, and using weights to determine the symmetry of his painting. The process is fascinating and captured by Erice with astute precision. The day begins well, but the weather begins to interrupt progress, and problems start to emerge.

Erice’s film captures the process of painting completely. As much as we would like to believe it’s as simple as Bob Ross makes it look, this is often not the case. The film shows the good with the bad, the quiet satisfaction of brush strokes across a canvas, and the frustration of the wind altering the subject you have spent so long depicting.

Documentary is not how Erice made his name, with his more famous work, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), being a powerful drama set against the backdrop of Francoist Spain. El sol del membrillo does share similarities with the film, with cinematography that utilises every drop of light it can capture to great effect, in Spirit of the Beehive,this manifests in depicting childlike imaginings, and in El sol del membrillo,it is seen as a rare commodity, something García is desperate to have more of. Despite these similarities, a key difference remains. Whereas Spirit of the Beehive explores early life and a child’s understanding of a terrifying world, El sol del membrillo sees an artist struggle to come to terms with his age, pleading for more time, just as he does with the day’s light.

Despite not holding the soothing influence of Bob Ross throughout its runtime, El sol del membrillo is perhaps the defining documentary about painting. Erice captures García and his issues with painting, ageing, and light with a deft meticulousness. His ever-erratic attempts to capture the tree begin serenely, and though the images may descend more and more into chaos, they retain their sumptuousness. About as comprehensive a capturing of an artist’s process as there can be, Erice’s foray into documentary solidified his reputations as one of Spain’s most important directors.

El Sol del membrillo trailer.

Header image courtesy of Trigon Film