An enjoyably atmospheric if less than fully satisfying supernatural drama, “Shadow of the Pepper Tree” will tempt comparison in some quarters with “Like Water for Chocolate.” While new pic is darker and less epically scaled than that surprise smash, not-dissimilar mix of sensuality and magical revenge should make arthouse inroads in various territories.
Luna (Mayra Serbulo) is eldest daughter to Chantica, shamanic healer in a Mexican village. She knows she, too, has “powers,” but Mom is harshly unwilling to let Luna explore them — perhaps because the girl was “born under a dark and dangerous sign” that portends ill. After one last argument, Luna storms off to squat in a building’s ruins; neighbors in this yet more rural area soon discern her “gift,” allowing the young woman at last to set up her own healing practice.
This being 1968, Mexico is full of expatriate hippies from the north. One such type, the rakish painter Terence (Thom Vernon, looking rather like Neil Young in that era), approaches Luna as a client in need of “cure,” but soon desires her romantic attentions, too. At first she fends off this “tempter,” then relents. As they set up housekeeping, the shared idyll is constantly interrupted by Terence’s sneaking back to hang out with townie pals — something he keeps Luna well segregated from.
Pic’s flavorful, low-key tenor keeps this increasingly occult tale from entering full-on horror terrain, though an episode in which Luna confronts her inner “demon-jaguar” is rather silly, and the cliffhanger climax, involving Luna and Terence’s toddlerage son, could be better staged.
Story development is choppy at times. While the conflict between Luna’s strong, uncomplicated morality and the irresponsibility of Terence’s countercultural set provides an offbeat, intriguing hook, latter types could be sketched more fully. Vernon has a sort of junior-Jack Nicholson edge that suggests both charm and loutishness; but his character remains more ambiguous than necessary. Serbulo effectively swings from innocence to witchy vengefulness, then back again.
Without excess prettiness, pic has a lush look whose lighting and lensing schemes grow more colorful (almost, aptly, psychedelic) as narrative gets more baroque. A good musical score is another plus.