Centered on a village about to be covered by a reservoir, “Wiped-Out Footprints,” third pic from Argentine-born helmer Enrique Gabriel, is a beautifully understated drama that’s one of the most impressive Spanish films of the year. The premise promises either a big-time weepie or political breast-beater, but the cannily crafted script avoids all the obvious pitfalls, opting instead for subtle meditations on loss, filtered through a range of well-drawn characters. Movie picked up three prizes at its first fest outing in Malaga, and offshore arthouse showings look like a strong possibility.
Pic is set during the weeks leading up to the change. Poet and journalist Manuel Perea (dependable Federico Luppi) returns from Argentina to the northern Spanish village of his birth, having heard it is about to be replaced by a reservoir. Gradually, it emerges that he also wants to re-ignite the flame between himself and widow Virginia (Mercedes Sampietro), his g.f. many years earlier.
The village is in emotional and political turmoil, through which Manuel, part-observer, part-participant, carefully picks his way. Suppressed rivalries explode, and long-forgotten battles over land rights are revived. Virginia’s daughter, Rosa (Elena Anaya), is maturing and rebelling, and has set up house with her art restorer b.f., Delfin (Sergi Calleja). Her pregnancy is one of pic’s few suggestions of hope for the future.
Other characters include Leoni (Marivi Bilbao) and Felisa (Asuncion Balaguer), two eccentric sisters who provide the movie’s most explicit comedy, and Manuel’s stubborn old friend Don Jose (Hector Alterio, superb), with whom he spends long afternoons in philosophical conversation. Jose reveals to Manuel a few secrets about the village’s past that he feels can now come to the surface and which will alter the lives of others.
The various effects of the change on the village’s inhabitants add up to a perceptive study of how people react to the loss of their histories. The parallels are subtly drawn between Manuel’s attempts to recapture the past in the form of Virginia and its literal disappearance in the form of the village: The final scene between them is a beautifully played portrait of two mature people forced to accept that reality is stronger than hope.
Crucially, the carefully wrought script avoids being judgmental, and the pic is far from a rose-tinted nostalgia trip. The leisurely dynamics of traditional village life are well captured, as is the sense of behind-the-scenes political wrangling. Highly textured lensing of the lush green landscape is a joy, contrasting nicely with intimate, low-lit interiors. Perfs are good across the board, with standout turns from Luppi, who has screen presence to burn in the lead role, and vets Balaguer and Alterio.