An investigative trip to a mysterious, isolated Basque hill town populated by eccentrics (and a fair sprinkling of lizards) becomes a mesmerizing and evocative experience for protagonist and viewer alike in Montxo Armendariz’s satisfyingly rich “Obaba,” a delicately fashioned look at memory and identity that creates an alternative world. Like helmer’s “Secrets of the Heart,” “Obaba” carefully unlocks the past to study its effect on the present, with results that hauntingly jog things out of familiar perspectives. Pic’s fresh vision and fusion of regional charm with magic realism should ensure arthouse interest from a range of territories.
University student Lourdes (Barbara Lennie) heads for Obaba with her camera to complete a video assignment. Even before she’s arrived, things start to turn strange: driving up the lonely forested road to the village, she runs into Ismael (Hector Colome), owner of the local hostel, clutching a lizard and darkly muttering that Obaba is “87 bends” away. When she asks for directions from elderly Tomas (Txema Blasco), his sister Begona (Inake Irastorza) hysterically informs her that he’s deaf because, as a schoolboy, Ismael put a lizard in his ear that devoured part of his brain — a shocking, absurd notion, but one that seems to be borne out by an old photo hanging in the hostel.
This off-kilter way of looking at life affects Lourdes more and more strongly as things proceed. She falls in with happy-go-lucky Miguel (Juan Diego Botto), whose mother (Mercedes Sampietro) mysteriously leaves flowers on the grave of a dead German engineer (Peter Lohmeyer). The sense is of a community that has evolved independently of the outside world and which follows its own rules — which makes it both charming and dangerous.
Given that Lourdes is an outsider, the inhabitants of Obaba open up to her a little too easily. Their stories are the substance of three self-contained 1960’s flashbacks, stories interesting to Lourdes because they deal with people who, like herself, are marginal to Obaba life. Each adopts a different visual aesthetic.
The first involves a lonely schoolmistress (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who waits interminably for letters from her lover that never arrive. The second works less well as it trades too heavily in psychology cliches on the drowning of a mentally unstable man’s sister. The final section describes the pen pal friendship between Esteban (Ryan Cameron), the son of the engineer, and a girl in Germany. Like Atxaga’s novel, pic packs a lot of stories into a short space, with the threads linking them subtly, and often surprisingly.
Still, the Lourdes-Miguel relationship never really justifies the time spent on it.
The transition from the complex narrative that made up Atxaga’s book is handled less clumsily than might be expected by Lourdes’ constant videography, which maintains the novel’s central point about the importance of stories in defining ourselves. Atxaga’s book showed how Basque identity will always be beyond the comprehension of non-Basques, but here the script is careful to convert the question into a more universal study of the difficulty of imagining other worlds and the dangers inherent in tight-knit, traditional communities.
Lennie has previously played only secondary roles, but here carries things well, her dark eyes seeming about to teeter over into madness. However, her inability to make sense of what is happening to her leaves her character looking somewhat passive and unfocused. Otherwise, most members of the sizeable cast eke interest out of even minor roles, with the youngsters in particular doing terrific work.
Helmer’s affection for the world he has created is evident, and superbly rendered by Javier Aguirresarobe’s lensing of the often rain-soaked hues of Obaba and its surroundings. Art direction by Julio Esteban and Julio Torrecilla successfully takes care of the details. Guitar, piano and viola-based score is used discreetly throughout. Pacing is stately, sometimes too much so, while Lourdes’ voiceovers to the camera too often express little more than her own confusion.