As a lengthy closing text scroll confirms, there are nuggets of historical truth in “Dirty Wolves” — in fact, one of its four scenarists, Felipe Rodriguez, made a documentary about them by the same name in 2006. Presumably the other three were responsible for burying that factual basis in a borderline-ridiculous pile of melodramatic overplotting, not least a supernatural element so underdeveloped that it provides incongruous last-act icing on an overcooked paella. This handsome but woefully cluttered thriller involving Allied subterfuge of a Nazi-controlled mine in rural 1944 Spain looks unlikely to travel far offshore, save as a niche tube and rental time-filler.
Manuela (Marian Alvarez) is a scandalously unwed mother — the “scoundrel” father skipped town long ago — living with her young daughter, her sister Candela (Manuela Velles) and their own mom (Luisa Merelas) on the outskirts of a remote village in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region. The only legitimate employment to be had hereabouts in laboring in a mining concern seized by Nazi forces, as its wolfram (or tungsten) is highly valued in arms production. It’s hard, ill-paid work, with some like Manuela taking great risks in selling small amounts of the mineral on the black market to Allied agents, who pay larger sums for any smuggled tungsten that can be kept out of Axis hands.
When she has a premonition of an accident in the mines, Manuela piques the interest of the operation’s handsome, ruthless German commander, Franz (Pierre Kiwitt). She begins playing a dangerous double game of seeming to encourage his courtship while simultaneously funneling information and messages between English doctor Edgar (Thomas Coumans) and political prisoner Miguel (Isak Ferriz). Miguel is part of the mine’s forced-labor-camp division, and is secretly planning to seize and deliver all the accumulated wolfram to Allied forces before it can be shipped to Germany. Meanwhile, Candela takes the equally high-risk step of helping Jewish refugees sneak across the border to Portugal, aided by Edgar’s dashing French comrade, Bryan (Sam Louwyck), with whom she soon sparks romantically.
Given that Manuela also schedules makeout time with both Franz and Miguel, there is in fact a rather ludicrous amount of hot sex happening here amid all the espionage intrigue, Nazi brutality and mining disasters, not to mention the general grinding poverty and illness. Indeed, wartime privation on top of bleak, superstitious rural life has seldom seemed quite so thrill-a-minute. In what can only be guessed at as an attempt to add a dash of “Pan’s Labyrinth” imitation, Franz manifests an obsessive interest in some local folk legend that Manuela’s family may or may not have a personal association with. This aspect is so poorly articulated as to be downright useless, until it abruptly, absurdly takes centerstage in the frantic climactic reel.
In his debut theatrical feature, helmer Simon Casal de Miguel guides a capable cast to better performances than their one-dimensional roles deserve (though the female leads are none too convincing as illiterate rural peasants), and the pacing has nary a wasted moment — though it could have used a few, to offset the increasingly far-fetched atmosphere of constant crisis. The action and suspense sequences aren’t artfully handled enough to transcend that general air of improbability.
The sense of opportunity missed is underlined when closing text reveals that two real-life sisters in the area helped hundreds of Jews escape to safety during the war, at enormous personal risk — something that is reduced to what feels like just one more farfetched fictive subplot here. “Dirty Wolves” has more than enough weighty, factually based issues to support a serious epic miniseries; too bad it plays them at the near-hysterical pace of a 1930s spy serial. Nevertheless, the pic is attractively packaged, its most notable aspect being d.p. Sergi Gallardo’s striking aerial shots of the gorgeous, mountainous countryside— though even this eventually becomes an overused visual crutch, bridging constant jumps between too many underdeveloped story strands.