Basque wunderkind Julio Medem’s long-awaited third feature is a sumptuously attired, cosmic love story that rattles like an empty can. Hugely ambitious, even by the helmer’s own standards, pic sports some striking moments but finally adds up to far less than the sum of its disparate parts. Latino viewers may tune into some hidden grail here but the movie looks set to land with a thud among English-speaking auds won over by his highly original “Cows” and “The Red Squirrel.”
Opening somewhere in outer space with a godlike voice intoning thoughts about existence and anguish, film zeros in on a small community in the red-earthed region of Aragon. Angel (Carmelo Gomez), a professional fumigator, has come to eradicate a breed of bug that thrives in the soil and gives the local wine a distinctive earthy flavor. It’s a region where savage bolts of lightning split trees, fry sheep and kill humans. One by one, Angel meets a small group of locals living in this almost-Martian landscape. Patricio (Karra Elejalde) is a gruff peasant type who likes to shoot boar and play pool in the evenings at the local bar. His younger wife, Angela (Emma Suarez), is a quiet hausfrau who tolerates his sessions with local sexpot Mari (Silke) for the sake of their young daughter (Ane Sanchez).
Hanging around on the periphery are Angela’s widowed father, Tomas (Txema Blasco), a quiet type, and her elder brother, Alberto (Nancho Novo), a long-haired, skeptical hippie who works in the local bar.
While doing tests before fumigating the soil, Angel forms an attachment to the shy Angela. Even more to Patricio’s distress, he also can’t resist the approaches of the hotter-than-hot, leather-clad Mari, who initially sees him as a quick conquest but later pegs him as a mate beyond pure sex.
Angel, however, is not all he seems. Haunted by an alter ego who often appears before his eyes, he’s soon being pulled hither and thither by his yearnings for the two women.
That’s basically it on the story side. Despite elaborate dressing, with a deal of metaphysical musings and the parallel (and unresolved) mystery of how the bugs affect the vines, the pic boils down to a confused guy torn between two opposite women — homely, 30ish Angela and sex-on-legs teenager Mari.
Medem’s packaging is undeniably impressive. Doused throughout in the red hues of the Aragon landscape, and stunningly composed in widescreen by d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe, the picture has an unearthly feel that’s a potent stage for the elemental central love story. Latter is persuasively limned by both Medem regular Suarez, as Angela, and newcomer Silke, as Mari, even under the probing use of closeups favored by the helmer for their exchanges with the hero.
It’s in the script’s hokey pretensions that the movie strikes an off-key note. Medem’s previous features made original use of the idea of flora and fauna as omnipresent, cynical observers of human follies, but here the bugs aren’t given special resonance within the main story. On a less earthbound level, the v.o. remarks by Angel’s alter ego are at best murky metaphysics, at worst cosmic claptrap. Whether Angel is in fact an angel in human form is left dangling like one of the charred sheep.
Gomez (from “Cows” and “Squirrel”) makes a handsome but finally rather wimpy hero, hard to fathom as the love object of two striking femmes. Elejalde is OK in the more straightforward role of the peasant Patricio, and Novo (the male lead in “Squirrel”) enigmatic in a sidebar part as Angela’s brother.
Aside from the knockout cinematography, other technical credits, including occasional f/x, are tops.