Pedro Aguilera confirms his membership in the select group of Spanish experimental helmers worth watching with “Shipwreck,” a challenging but rewarding study of a sub-Saharan African immigrant in Spain. Less austere than Aguilera’s debut, “The Influence,” this slow, elliptical and visually rich spin on “Robinson Crusoe” confounds expectations by being symbolic and lyrical rather than gritty and downbeat, while its hero exploits Europe to get what he wants rather than the other way around. This brave defiance of convention is welded to some startling imagery, a combination that should help “Shipwreck” drifts festward.
Immigrant Robinson (Solo Toure) washes up on the coastline of Almeria in southern Spain, which initially looks uncannily like a desert island, and is taken to the home of the kindly Sankum (Iacouba Dembere), who finds him work picking fruit. But Robinson, guided by the voices in his head, heads north to the Basque Country, clutching a knife.
There, he goes to live in a hostel whose other inhabitants include borderline psychopath Angel Jesus (Kandido Uranga) and young, gay Daniel (Alex Merino), who’s attracted to this newcomer. Robinson finds work in a local explosives factory run by Luismi (Ramon Barea), where he declines an invitation to take part in a sexual threesome with Jose (Julio Perillan) and Jose’s g.f., Rosa (Ruth Armas).
Through all this, Robinson remains stoically detached. Occasionally he sits down and performs a magical ritual designed to connect the worlds of the living and the dead, speaking to a figure who seems to have demanded revenge: This, rather than any desire for a better life, is what has brought him to Spain. The other characters — and, for that matter, viewers — are never given much access to what’s going on inside Robinson’s head, which is probably the whole point.
Pic thus reps the latest in a line of revisionist versions of Daniel Defoe’s novel, one that features the telling image of its protag indifferently tossing Euro notes onto a bonfire — a symbolic critique of the European way of life to which so many immigrants aspire. On a more literal level, many questions remain unanswered, such as how Robinson understands Spanish so well, and why a racist like Angel would be prepared to spend so much time with him. But in a pic that refuses to join up the narrative dots as a matter of principle, such quibbles seem minor.
Toure barely speaks, but is nevertheless always watchable as he strolls, aloof and lean, past Europeans who seem absurdly miserable and frustrated by contrast. However, the script is silent on the problems Robinson has left behind at home, and his quiet, determined heroism feels idealized.
Aguilera was Carlos Reygadas’ assistant director on “Battle in Heaven,” and the influence shows: Arnau Valls’ richly hued and shadowed lensing offers a fresh view of a time-honored story. Stylistic tricks include undercranking and off-vertical shots, both suggestive of Robinson’s skewed perceptions, while there is the occasional stunning image drawn from the world of the mystical, such as when a flame dances in the palm of Robinson’s hand.
Otherwise, it’s often long, slow takes that occasionally irritate: A scene of the hostel group eating, which makes use of high-volume sound (chewing, breathing and so on), is not for delicate sensibilities. But the soundtrack also features some wonderful electronics crucial to the pic’s generally ominous air.