Well-intentioned and daring, Solveig Hoogesteijn’s “Santera,” which looks at the impact of indigenous Latin-American witchcraft on the life of a city girl, approaches a difficult subject with intelligence and enthusiasm. Direction is up to scratch, but a labored script and unmemorable perfs suggest this would have worked better as straight documentary. Bewitchment of non-Latino auds is unlikely.
Paula (Laura del Sol) is a social worker sent from Spain to work in a women’s prison in Venezuela. On arrival, she makes contact with prisoner Soledad (Hirma Salcedo), who is being shunned because other prisoners believe she is a santera, a faith healer who uses the ritual powers of witchcraft to evil effect. When she sees prison officers torturing Soledad, Paula takes her under her wing.
Pic awkwardly describes Soledad’s complicated family history in her jungle pueblo, which involves her spiritual father, Eulogio (the magnificently physical Victor Cuica), a dead child and an irate family friend (Gledys Ibarra). Visually, the pueblo scenes are stunning, with Hoogesteijn going to great lengths to re-create the color and delirium of authentic santera rituals and dances as chickens wander round with glumly expectant expressions. These sequences are so much fun that it is a disappointment to have to return to the plodding Paula narrative.
The script raises awkward questions about the value of pre-Christian practices in a post-Christian society, but its relentless earnestness and occasionally implausible dialogue — Eulogio in particular can barely open his mouth without being ponderously mystical — mean that pic becomes hard work, especially in its later stages. Production values are solid.