One morning in 1997 after a two-year-long sojourn around Europe in a camper van, Dutch couple Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool woke up on a hillside in Galicia, in northern Spain and decided they’d found home. The village — little more than a collection of abandoned tumbledown structures clinging to the side of a mountain — was called Santa Eulalia, though even its name seemed to have collapsed in on itself, being more often referred to as Santoalla. Part of the attraction for the young couple, making a new, hippy-tinged, self-sufficient life for themselves, was its isolation. Not even the mailman delivered out there, so it’s hard to imagine how directing team Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer found their way. But in their debut documentary feature, this tiny hidden hamlet, and the even tinier human tragedy that unfolded within it, is brought to wider attention. While “Santoalla” is a small story, its poignancy resonates, like an echo finding its way through the peaks and valleys of this windswept, eternal landscape.
Unfolding in a chronologically shifting collage of interviews, imagery of the ruined village and its environs, and found footage — much of it shot by Martin himself over the years — the film is far from the most formally daring documentary of the year. But the undemonstrative classicism of the approach feels appropriate to a tale of bad blood, mistrust of outsiders, land and greed that is nearly as old as the hills in which it takes place. The story of Martin Verfondern’s 2010 disappearance (the film is a kind of true-crime éxposé, though the mystery’s solution is more prosaic than revelatory) is full of peculiar, lonely pathos: This was a power play that happened over an all-but-disregarded patch of land, between the only two families on earth who loved it.
Martin and Margo’s neighbors in Santoalla — its only other residents — were the Rodriguez family: Mother Jovita, a wizened elder, interviewed often in the village church that she has all to herself; hard-working son Julio and his slow-witted brother Carlos; and patriarch Manolo, the de facto lord of this crumbling domain. Julio was at first friendly with the ponytailed, guitar-playing Martin, who had dreams not just of running a self-sufficient farm, but of improving and repairing this wild little corner of Eden, of arresting its decline and seeing it thrive. But as Martin came up with more schemes for village improvement and development, Manolo and the Rodriguezes found increasingly belligerent ways to block them, even issuing vague threats, such as sending one of Martin’s goats home to him wearing Julio’s jacket with a bullet in the pocket.
Tellingly, the only time we hear Manolo speak is in footage from the court case that Martin brought against him, accusing his neighbors of pocketing money meant for the upkeep of the village. (And certainly the overgrown paths and derelict houses, windows black and gaping like slack, incurious mouths, show no sign of care.) But the lack of direct input from Manolo does contribute to a feeling of imbalance. Margo’s point of view is favored, and though she is an eminently credible witness and does not present her vanished husband as some sort of saint, there’s still no attempt to view their arrival/intrusion through the neighbors’ eyes. Even Margo admits that Martin’s personality changed, he became “more serious” and more obsessed with documenting the Rodriguezes’ transgressions, but we’re left to imagine how that, coupled with their blow-in, know-nothing status, could have been quite a reasonable irritant to the long-established farming family.
One small detail is of note in that regard: Margo and Martin first fell in love in the Netherlands, where they were both passionately involved in protesting a local council’s development plans. But neither Margo nor the film’s directors make much of the irony that though they were therefore presumably committed anti-gentrification, Martin’s plans for Santoalla could be viewed as encroaching on local turf and customs in a similar way.
Absent that side of the story, “Santoalla” is primarily a touching portrait of sunny idealism turned dark and a micro-study in souring rural politics, where isolation and neglect has led to a crippling fear of change, especially among those who need to play emperor, even if their empire is nothing but dirt and stones and decline. Indeed, the most haunting presence in “Santoalla” is Santoalla itself. Little more than a ruin now, its indifference to the fate of its inhabitants feels almost malevolent. You can see why Martin loved it, but sometimes, the thing you love can kill you, and the piles of stones that once were houses being gradually reclaimed by the wild suggest the folly of trying to challenge the unconquerable entropy of this lonely, strange place.