Spanish veteran Manuel Gutierrez Aragon’s “Visionaries,” set during the transition in the 1930s from religious rule to a secular state, hitches a doomed love story to a widely debated episode in which Basque Country villagers claimed to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary. But while the high-profile cast and polished production values tag this historical drama as a prestige picture, its lifelessly reverential approach, lack of emotional engagement and failure of the central romance to conjure any lasting resonance will limit commercial prospects beyond Spain.
Premiered at the San Sebastian fest, the drama opens, quite appropriately, with a striking scene on the town’s La Concha beach as seaside revelers are interrupted by a dour procession of religious protesters. The latter lament the government’s removal of all religious imagery from schools and public buildings, chanting, “A state without religion is a state without a soul.”
In this climate, the reverberations of the apparitions in the tiny hill town of Ezkioga have a heightened impact. A young man training to be a teacher, Joshe (Eduardo Noriega), travels to the village each week to visit his fiancee, Edurne (Leire Ucha). His first encounter with Usua (Ingrid Rubio), a maid at the local inn, sparks a powerful, reciprocal attraction, however. Both girls claim to have seen the nightly visions of the Virgin in a hillside clearing. But while Edurne’s supposed sightings are exposed as the product of an impressionable mind, Usua remains steadfast in her convictions, relaying the Madonna’s message that Spain must repent to avoid war and chaos.
Gutierrez Aragon plods through the mounting hysteria over the Madonna sightings with no significant acceleration of dramatic momentum, keeping it absorbing but rather flat. Having established a potentially rich departure point from which to explore the theme of mass delusion, the writer-director fails to bring much insight or analysis to his account of the events.
Biggest problem, however, is the sappy romantic leads. Noriega, usually fine in edgier, more contemporary roles, is saddled with some regrettable dialogue (“It’s me or the Virgin!”), failing to convey the conflict of a man torn between love and the certainty his inamorata is fooling herself. Rubio is unconvincing in both religious-rapture and lovestruck modes, while, in a role with no clear function, Emma Suarez makes little impression as a glamorous socialite who adopts the Ezkioga believers as her personal cause.
Fernando Fernan-Gomez brings a welcome note of sly humor to his brief scenes as the state governor.
Some reward is provided by Hans Burmann’s polished widescreen lensing of the Basque countryside locations and of coastal San Sebastian’s glittering splendors.