You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Santoalla’

An evocative doc investigating the disappearance of Martin Verfondern from his adopted home, a remote, near-abandoned village in Galicia.

Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer
(Gallego, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5816712/

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.

Film Review: 'Santoalla'

Reviewed online, Berlin, July 22, 2017. (Also in Edinburgh, IDFA film festivals). Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: (Spain-U.S. — Documentary) An Oscilloscope Laboratories release of a What Delicate Pictures production, in association with Radical Media. (International sales: What Delicate Pictures, New York.) Producers: Cristina De La Torre, Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer. Executive Producers: Dave O'Connor, Justin Wilkes.

Crew: Directors: Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer. Camera (color): Becker, Mehrer. Editor: Becker. Music: Becker.

With: (Gallego, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Doppelgänger Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide

    Box Office: 'Us' on Track for Second-Highest Debut of 2019 With $67 Million

    Jordan Peele’s “Us” is on its way to scaring up one of the biggest debuts of 2019, with an estimated $67 million from 3,741 North American locations. Should estimates hold, “Us” will be able to claim several milestones: the highest debut for an original horror movie (the biggest launch for any horror pic goes to [...]

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content