The Earth’s Skin

A WWII deserter takes shelter in a high-plains village and vows to recast the local church's broken bronze bell in "The Earth's Skin," a high-toned but leaden debut by experienced TV helmer Manuel Fernandez. Full of semi-resonant symbolism and oblique storytelling, pic feels like a throwback to the art films of the Franco era, where allegory bearded political message-making. Star turn by studly Spanish thesp Sergio Peris Mencheta and upmarket cast will help ring up niche domestic B.O., while pic's somber note may attract more fests invites in wake of its Moscowcompetition debut.

With:
With: Sergio Peris Mencheta, Pilar Barrera, Carmen del Valle, Manuel Galiana, Manuel de Blas.

A WWII deserter takes shelter in a high-plains village and vows to recast the local church’s broken bronze bell in “The Earth’s Skin,” a high-toned but leaden debut by experienced TV helmer Manuel Fernandez. Full of semi-resonant symbolism and oblique storytelling, pic feels like a throwback to the art films of the Franco era, where allegory bearded political message-making. Star turn by studly Spanish thesp Sergio Peris Mencheta and upmarket cast will help ring up niche domestic B.O., while pic’s somber note may attract more fests invites in wake of its Moscowcompetition debut.

Broad-shouldered Pablo (Peris Mencheta, from “Secret Agents”) escapes from a small prison camp-cum-foundry where he’s picked up some metallurgical skills. In the middle of nowhere, he meets Saletiel (veteran Manuel Ga-liana), whose flock of homing pigeons relays messages back and forth to the outside world. Saletial introduces Pablo to his clearly loco wife, Raquel (the formidable Carmen del Valle), who is obsessed with restoring the local church’s damaged bell, convinced the right, pure peal will keep storms away from the region.

Pablo gets work up the mountain in a cemetery, working alongside salty-tongued gravedigger Mateo (Manuel de Blas). Rounding out the tiny cast comes love-interest Maria (dulcet-voiced Pilar Barrera), whose bedridden, speechless papa happens to be a master bellmaker. His notebooks provide a handy manual for Pablo’s new project, to fulfil Raquel’s dream; however, passion and betrayal surface in the meantime.

Not since Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev” has a film devoted so much attention to the process of bell-making – shown in such meticulous detail that one could almost try it at home. Helmer Fernandez has a penchant for tight close-ups on objects like fires, compasses and dusty books, which take on a spooky, totemic status. His handling of time has a similar, neo-primitive quality: action which seems to extend over the course of a year looks like it unfolds in a permanently overcast, eternal present.

Perfs have a nicely understated quality, though Peris Mencheta is just so-so in the lead. Barrera aquits herself better as Maria, all secret smiles and fleet movements, while Del Valle gets Raquel’s lunacy across without chewing the whitewashed walls. (Gamely, for a dame of her age, she also strips naked for one enigmatic scene.)

D.p. Pablo Hernandez’s lighting is especially effective in fireside scenes, and rest of tech credits are unobtrusively pro.

The Earth's Skin

Spain

Production: A Montenegro PE presentation. (International sales: El Retiro Producciones, Madrid.) Produced by Juan Peguero. Executive producer, Carlos Conde. Directed, written by Manuel Fernandez.

Crew: Camera (color), Pablo Hernandez; editor, Merimar Alquegui; music, Antonio Perez; production design, Juan Manuel Garcia, Lara Freire; costumes, Yolanda Blanco; sound (DTS stereo), Pedro R. Soto, Mario Gomez, Rosa Salas. Reviewed at Moscow Film Festival (competing), June 22, 2004. Running time: 100 MIN.

With: With: Sergio Peris Mencheta, Pilar Barrera, Carmen del Valle, Manuel Galiana, Manuel de Blas.

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