If I were studying psychology, I’d want to do a deep dive into this question: How is a person’s belief about the existence and nature of God shaped by the presence and character of their father and mother?

I’m re-reading Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, and I’m particularly intrigued by the influence of young Asher’s authoritative, judgmental, and yet often affectionate father Aryeh. A devout Hasidic Jew, Aryeh expresses furious disappointment in, frustration with, and condemnation of his son over his compulsion to grow as an artist. This stirs up a storm of emotions in Asher: fear, shame, self-hatred, and longing. And it greatly complicates his relationship with religious faith and his capacity to believe in a just and loving God.

This rings true. I have grown up with loving, faithful parents, and I often wonder if this has anything to do with why I have never suffered what is commonly called “a crisis of faith.” I’ve had seasons in which I become impatient and frustrated with God’s silence, but I have never experienced (that I can recall) a lapse of belief that God exists or deep doubts that God’s name is anything but synonymous with love.

Along the same lines, I have watched so many friends suffer crises of faith, and in so many of those troubles it seems that those same individuals are grappling with fractures in their relationships with their parents. Quite specifically, friends whose fathers abandoned or were unfaithful to their mothers have seemed to struggle with the idea that God could be either loving, faithful, or just.

I thought about this a lot watching El Sur, director Victor Erice’s intimate and visually enthralling drama about a girl growing up in northern Spain in the shadow of a loving but secretive father (Omero Antonutti).

The first half of the film focuses on Estrella when she is very young (played by Sonsoles Aranguren), fascinated with her father Agustín’s isolated work in the upstairs of the family home: “experiments,” her mother Julia says. But Estrella’s enchantment is shaken when she discovers evidence that her father might have secrets, secrets tied to the south of Spain, secrets that would expose dishonesty… or worse. Then the film shifts to Estrella the teenager (played by Icíar Bollaín), who is skeptical of her father and intent on learning the whole story behind his disappearances. Clues that lead her to a movie theater in town, and the plot thickens.

There are just enough religious references — particularly the centrality of Estrella’s First Communion — to start me thinking about theological implications of Estrella’s relationship with her father. But the film’s spirituality resides more in its subtle attention to visual beauty and a sense of mystery conveyed through composition. El Sur has some of the haunting qualities of a Terence Davies film, with a powerful motif of figures emerging from and disappearing into shadow. And there are meditative close-ups of both young actresses as Estrella that I suspect may have influenced Krzysztof Kieślowski’s work with Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Red.

This film also feels, strangely, like a prologue — an origin story for a woman who will embark on a quest full of discovery. Maybe I’ve seen too many series lately, but I was disappointed as I felt the conclusion of this 95-minute film approaching. I wanted to stay with Estrella and follow her as she set out to solve her father’s mysteries beyond the familiar territory of her childhood.

That disappointment deepened when, after watching this film for the first time on Criterion’s gorgeous blu-ray edition, I read about El Sur‘s history. What a bittersweet education! I was right to think that Erice’s movie feels like a prologue: As you might know, but I’ve only just discovered, the movie was meant to be twice as long. The producer Elías Querejeta shut the project down at the 95-minute mark thinking that the film seemed complete, even though Erice had his heart set on filming the full (and apparently extraordinary) screenplay. I think a lot of artists have probably had nightmares as I have about just this kind of crisis — fears of passion projects being shut down halfway through. My heart goes out to Erice.

If I must treat El Sur as a complete work, then I must confess that I find it unjust to Estrella’s mother Julia (Lola Cardona). She is so wronged by her husband Augustin, but her sufferings are treated as almost shrug-worthy here, while Augustin’s suffering is given great attention, as are his charisma and gravitas.

Having said that, Augustin and Estrella become a father–daughter pairing for the ages. As Augustin, Omero Antonutti is quietly enigmatic. And, collaborating to play Estrella at two different ages, Sonsoles Aranguren and Icíar Bollaín give convincingly cohesive performances — the transition is as seamless as can be. They make me believe enough to ache for Estrella’s feelings of betrayal and her desire to gain a mature understanding of her family’s secret history.

I might imagine a second half in which we see whether she holds on to any of her family’s cultural Catholicism after the painful turns in her view of her father’s character. That first hour’s emphasis on First Communion suggests that it would be right to revisit whether she carries any inklings of faith along with her into adulthood. Having lost faith in her father, is she still capable of turning to God for consolation and guidance? Or have the sins of the father wrought their ruinous consequences in the heart of his child? El Sur, this incomplete masterpiece, doesn’t have room for any suggestion one way or the other.