Dir: Montxo Armendariz.Sp-Ger. 2005. 109mins.
There are strange thingsgoing on down in Obaba, a tale of isolated village life set in thePyrenean hinterland of San Sebastian - which is why, presumably, it was chosento open the 53rd edition of Spain's A-list film festival.
But although it got a warmreaction from the gala guests, this literary adaptation tries to coast toolazily on the rural feelgood factor of warm autumnal colours and kooky villagecharacters. Dramatically inert, it is unlikely to travel much beyond theco-production territory of Germany.
At home in Spain, thefamiliarity of the Bernardo Atxaga novel on which the film is based and therecognisable ensemble cast will propel Obaba to fair-to-middling boxoffice takings, with older viewers accounting for much of the action.
A kind of Under Milkwood inBasque sauce, the film centres on the arrival of sexy, handycam-toting studentLourdes (relative newcomer Barbara Lennie) in the depopulated village of Obaba.
Approached at night on awindy road through a dark wood, the sub-horror vibes underlined by eerie chordsand the sudden apparition of a sinister guy holding a lizard (he turns out tobe guesthouse owner Ismael), Obaba is marked out from the start as a place cutoff from the modern world - in time as well as in space.
Lourdes is here to make afilm about village life (it's only much later that we are informed that this isa film school documentary project), and sets about interviewing the localsabout their memories.
These stories invade thepresent-day narrative plane, appearing as a series of inset short filmscentring on three characters. The first, and most affecting, focuses on alovelorn schoolteacher (the talented Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who sets mathsexercises revolving around letters never received, and who eventually givesherself to her oldest student, a rough and rustic shepherd.
The weakest segment followsanother pupil, Lucas (Eduard Fernandez), a sweaty loser who in later life ishaunted by the voice of his dead sister - and we sympathise with him, as herpiping voice-off contributions to his interior monologue begin to grate afterabout five seconds.
Finally we get the story ofThe German (Peter Lohmeyer) - a mining engineer who is still regarded withsuspicion, years after he moved into the village - and his son, who begins tocorrespond with a woman in Hamburg whose name and address come to him in avision.
In returning to thelocations of his most successful film to date, Secrets Of The Heart,director Armendariz plugs the arcadian charms of the mountainous Navarraregion, coming firmly down on the rural side of the city-country debate.
The past, tinted brown,cream and sepia, shot in warm firelight or raking sun, is seen as a richer,more poignant place than the harsh and confusing present.
Unfortunately, thesedirectorial loyalties mean that the present-day scenes - especially thePamplona-set university sequences, but also the love scenes between Lourdes andlocal slacker Miguel (Juan Diego Botto) - come across as flat and unresolved.
In Atxaga's magical-realistnovel - which contained far more story-strands than this rather anaemic filmversion - symbol and metaphor work on subtle levels which have more than alittle to do with the insular nature of Basque society and culture, and thecultural Morse code that developed under Franco's dictatorship.
Here, though, the lizardsthat run (literally) through the film are more spooky horror props than richseams in the film's mine of metaphor. Though Obaba has its moments ofemotional truth, these float like croutons in a rather insipid gazpacho.
Neue Impuls Film
Bavaria Film International
Rori Sainz de Rozas
Pilar Lopez de Ayala
Juan Diego Botto