Idiosyncratic helmer Isaki Lacuesta combines docu, re-creation and fiction in the visually impressive but narratively challenged "The Double Steps."

Idiosyncratic helmer Isaki Lacuesta combines docu, re-creation and fiction in the visually impressive but narratively challenged “The Double Steps.” Weaving elements of the life of French-artist-in-Africa Francois Augieras with those of his spiritual heir, Spanish-artist-in-Africa Miquel Barcelo, and stories told by the Dogon people of Mali, the pic uses the search for a hidden fresco cycle as a jumping-off point to play with concepts of storytelling, fantasy and Barcelo’s relationship to his chosen home. Elliptical, meandering and ultimately unconvincing, “Double Steps” received San Sebastian’s top prize but won’t break out of the fest ghetto.

It would appear that painter and writer Augieras indulged in a bit of mythmaking before his death in 1971. He let it be known that he painted a cycle of frescoes in a bunker somewhere in Mali, which he then covered over with desert sands, leaving scattered clues to be discovered one day. Lacuesta presents two journeys in “The Double Steps,” one involving an embodiment of Augieras by a local (Bokar Dembele), and the other with artist Barcelo, whose recent work is inspired by the late French painter’s life and oeuvre.

The helmer moves back and forth between these two worlds, stimulated in part by the empty spaces left by hungry termites who’ve eaten away paintings left in Mali’s challenging environment. The idea is easier to explain in print than to realize onscreen, and the words offered by narrator Hamadoun Kassogue don’t make things much clearer.

Early scenes are reminiscent of Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail”: Augieras is a soldier in a fort commanded by his uncle (Kassogue), with whom he seems to have an incestuous relationship. This Augieras is an invention inspired by the Frenchman rather than a literal incarnation. When he fails some trust exercises with fellow soldiers, he’s banished and starts his wanderings, which include falling in with some bandits and encounters with a village of albinos.

In the here-and-now, Barcelo paints and socializes with locals for whom fantastical tales are part of everyday life. They go in search of Augieras’ lost bunker, which leads to a striking scene in a cave whose walls are partly covered with drawings. Believing these are clues Augieras left, and unwilling to let them be read by others, Barcelo and his friends rub the markings away. Only viewers who watch Lacuesta’s 61-minute docu “The Clay Diaries,” also presented at San Sebastian, will know that Barcelo himself made these drawings; “Clay,” which mostly records a performance art piece in Mali, will surely be an extra on the DVD.

Spaghetti Westerns are among Lacuesta’s inspirations, partly thanks to Augieras’ own affinities, and certain scenes, as well as the music, are modeled after the iconic oaters. Even the semi-ruined mud buildings of the Dogon bear a resemblance to Native American pueblos, and the outlaws with bandoliers further the comparison. It makes for loads of ambiance but impenetrable narration, though the helmer is more interested in conjuring mood, with iconic (some may say stereotyped) images of a man in a baobab tree, or a group of albinos emerging from tents at night.

Lacuesta’s usual ace d.p. Diego Dussuel impressively captures the striking Mali landscapes, and his atmospheric nocturnal scenes, with their fanciful evocations of an almost otherworldly spirituality, are also things of wonder. The transfer from Red to 35mm retains all the desired richness of tone.

The Double Steps

Spain-Switzerland

Production

A Tusitala P.C., Bord Cadre Films, Television Espanola production. (International sales: M-Appeal, Berlin.) Produced by Luisa Matienzo, Dan Wechsler. Directed by Isaki Lacuesta. Screenplay, Isa Campo, Lacuesta.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Diego Dussuel; editor, Domi Parra; music, Gerard Gil; production designer, Sebastian Birchler; costume designer, Christophe Mercier; sound (Dolby), Amanda Villavieja, Juerg von Allmen; associate producer, Jamal Zeimal Zade; assistant director, Luis Bertolo; casting, Cendrine Lapuyade. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 19, 2011. (Also in Busan Film Festival -- World Cinema; Chicago Film Festival -- World Cinema, Black Perspectives.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Bokar Dembele, Miquel Barcelo, Alou Cisse, Hamadoun Kassogue, Amon Pegnere Dolo, Amassagou Dolo, Abinum Dolo, Soumaila Sabata, Djenebou Keita, Mahamadou Camara. Narrator: Hamadoun Kassogue. (Bambara, Dogon, French dialogue)

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