The particularly Spanish blend of history and horror is given an intriguing sci-fi twist in maverick helmer Oscar Aibar’s haunting but flawed “The Wood.” Superficially resembling “Pan’s Labyrinth” with its mixture of the magical and the mundane, this ambitiously told yarn about a rural couple’s struggle to survive following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War could easily have been a total mess, but its solid script, committed perfs and deceptively upbeat message keep things together right up until its daringly outlandish coda. Offshore prospects are limited, but the pic’s distinctiveness merits fest interest.
Gruff Ramon (Alex Brendemuhl) and put-upon wife Dora (Maria Molins) eke out an existence in a remote area of Aragon, where Ramon has the reputation of being the only Fascist in town. When the war breaks out, the anarchists, led by Coixo (Pere Ponce) seize power, forcing Ramon into hiding. Collectivization kicks in, giving the anarchists the excuse they need to start stealing Ramon’s chickens; the film strongly conveys the way war is used as an excuse to settle old rivalries.
Close to Ramon’s house is a circle of trees (not really woods, despite the title) where, every six months, there appears a strange, pulsating light into which people are said to vanish. After being attacked by a wolf while sleeping outdoors, Ramon escapes from his pursuers by entering the light, leaving Dora to fend off the unwanted attentions of Coixo.
Six months later, Ramon returns with stories of a land populated by fishlike aliens living in houses that look like artichokes (H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” is directly referenced at one point). After Ramon departs again, a troop of U.S. war volunteers led by Pickett (Tom Sizemore) takes up residence in the area. Pickett’s chats with Dora open up to her a new world: She has never, for example, seen a black man before.
Most Spanish Civil War pics, even very good ones like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” divide their characters into bad (Fascists) and good (everyone else). “The Wood” is practically unique in its view that war and its effects are bad for all involved, not just one side, and its healthy insistence that there should really be no such thing as an alien continues a tradition in Spanish cinema going back to Victor Erice’s masterpiece “The Spirit of the Beehive.” Aibar has mixed sci-fi into his work as far back as his 1995 debut, “Atolladero,” but this time, there’s a close fit between genre and message.
Perfs are fine, especially from Molins, a thesp relatively inexperienced in film who’s the center of attention here, suggesting great moral resilience beneath Dora’s fragile surface. The dependable Brendemuhl, who toplined another recent revisionist Civil War drama, Juan Carlos Medina’s “Painless,” convincingly delivers lines that would have been risible coming from a lesser actor. Other thesps struggle to avoid stereotype.
The sci-fi scenes occupy little screentime and are handled smoothly enough and according to budget. The simple string-based score is overused in some scenes. Dialogue is not spoken strictly in Catalan, but in Matarrani, a local dialect.