An irrepressible but uneven take on religion as the marijuana of the masses, “The Year of Maria,” helming debut from actors Fernando Guillen Cuervo and Karra Elejalde, unexpectedly did the year’s best first-week B.O. in Spain and has continued to hold strong. Stylistically a baby brother to Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s ground-breaking “Airbag” (1997), in which the duo also acted, pic’s exuberant blend of surrealism, religious satire, road movie and spaghetti Western is at worst sloppy and uncontrolled, at best nicely imaginative. Interest from standard Spanish-lingo territories is guaranteed, while its heavy dose of Spanish kitsch, which is what offshore buyers seem to respond to, could be enough to alert other offshore interest.
Mariano (Elejalde) is a down-and-out salesman of cassettes to highway rest stops who one night crashes his car into a cannabis plantation. As he lies there unconscious, cop Sgt. Talavera (Manuel Manquina) arrives with a team to destroy the plantation by burning it, giving lenser Hans Burmann his first opportunity to provide dreamy altered-states camerawork.
Mariano awakes to see a religious procession passing by and, hallucinating wildly, sees tears of blood coming from the statue of the Virgin Mary. (Pic makes great play of the fact that the Virgin and marijuana can both be called “Maria” in Spanish.)
Mariano is hailed as a visionary by Sister Trini (Gloria Munoz), and, when he says the Virgin spoke to him, the pueblo’s inhabitants soon leave the church in droves, to the chagrin of priest Don Javier (Juan Viadas). Tony Towers (Guillen Cuervo), a small-time crook recently released from prison and self-proclaimed “searcher for the meaning of life,” spots the commercial opportunity and becomes Mariano’s manager. Towers helps Mariano build a shrine on land belonging to corrupt property developer Don Simon (Fernando Guillen). A local TV station sends rookie reporter Maria Velez (Silvia Bel) to cover the events.
Cast of characters is completed by an American ’60s dropout, Hopper (Pepin Tre, replete with strong U.S. accent), who rides a scooter and creates mind-altering drugs. When Mariano sees a group of illegal immigrants entering Spain by boat and helps one of them, he is thrown in jail.
Pic is strongest in its perfs, which are exuberant (Elejalde standing out in the deadbeat-bum persona he has made his own), and in its dialogue, which is often genuinely witty. But its attempts to get serious points across (immigration; deception of the religious) and its satire on capitalism are heavy-handed and unoriginal.
The project is suffused at all levels with zealous excess: Camerawork is occasionally nausea-inducingly showy, music is unfailingly loud. Pic was shot largely in the spaghetti Western territory of Almeria in southeast Spain, and lensing duly takes in some stunning desert scenery.