In the Northwestern Spanish village of Santa Eulalia, known by its handful of citizens as Santoalla, directors Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer have found a haunting testament to the perils of living on the edge of society’s grid in a place at once under- and overruled. The documentary opens with found footage in which we see the village in fleeting glimpses without preparatory context, introducing a series of ruined shacks that are nestled in the beautiful yet unforgiving slopes of a mountainside. Abandoned homes are in advanced disrepair and farm animals wander by willy-nilly. The camera comes upon an old man sitting by the side of the road, who attacks the cameraman, cutting the device off in the process. What we’ve seen suggests a place of incestuous, H.P. Lovecraft-ian secrets as discovered by Werner Herzog’s roaming camera.
Margo Verfondern is the documentary’s protagonist, a Dutch woman who moved to the village with her boyfriend, Martin, in the late 1990s after tiring of city life near Amsterdam. Margo and Martin are hippy idealists who were looking to live off the Earth directly and naturally, and who went on a road trip for two years throughout Europe in search of an untouched place to realize their ambitions. In Santoalla’s most moving sequence, this trip is dramatized by a rapid montage of photos that were taken by Margo and Martin at the time, testifying casually to how quickly our cherished memories rush by us, later inspiring Proustian reveries. These moments gain a retrospective power when we’re told that Martin disappeared years ago, and that Margo suspects the neighboring Rodríguez family of foul play.
The Rodríguez family is Santoalla’s equivalent of old money: Before the Verfonderns arrive, they’re literally the only people left in the town, and they wish to maintain their isolationist status quo. The patriarch, Manolo, is in his 80s and spends most of his time in the family house that’s roosted right above the Verfondern property, but his wife, Jovita, is still directly involved with farming the land, which is run by their son, Julio. Martin breezes into town with reconstructive ideas, which the Rodríguezes thwart at every turn, and the two clans get into a heated dispute over appropriation of community money, which the Verfonderns win in court.
Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer get close to their subjects only to retreat when things get truly dangerous.
Santoalla relates a classical story, then, of an aging generation terrified and resentful of the progress that a newer generation, eager to define itself, wishes to generate. Remarkably, given where this narrative is headed, the Rodríguezes speak with Becker and Mehrer, and their resentment of the Verfonderns is so profound that it nearly oozes out of their pores.
The filmmakers contrast archive news footage of the family with interviews that have been shot specifically for the film, and, in both cases, the Rodríguezes can barely bring themselves to utter the encouraging platitudes that they know will politically serve them. Julio wishes the Verfonderns luck with their farming, and his goodwill is so disingenuous that he can barely utter the words beyond clenched teeth. In another archive segment, Martin talks to the camera in the foreground while Julio remains in the back of the frame milling about and stewing. Meanwhile, Jovita is the kind of poisoned matriarch who speaks of people needing to understand their place, inadvertently sounding like a villain in a lurid thriller.
Yet the Rodríguezes are also sympathetic, informing the film with its human ambiguities. No matter how backward or reactionary this family is, we’re allowed to understand how they might feel as if Santoalla belongs to them, as they were born to it and have navigated and mastered this land’s obstacles over the decades. Margo and Martin don’t seem properly empathetic to this sense of destiny, which mirrors their own, as they were once know-it-all revolutionaries who sought to reshape Santoalla in their image. Such ego doesn’t come close to warranting a death sentence, but the fear and anger felt by the Rodríguezes is unshakably palpable, as are the loneliness and regret that now grip Margo, who runs her farm alone after Martin rejuvenated it with a skillfulness that proves he was more than a man of talk.
The setting truly is the reason to see Santoalla, as the angular nooks of these houses attain a darker energy as we learn more of this feud. A Herzogian image of a goat standing on the second floor of a shack, eating the building’s straw roof, connotes a particular aura of nearly demonic chaos. Yet the film also meanders, which suggests that it should’ve either been shorter or, more likely, much longer; the conclusion, including a bombshell, demands greater analysis than Becker and Mehrer provide. The obviousness of the whodunit as presented here is both resonant, as a synecdoche of the emotional sickness dogging the land, and, well, obvious. The filmmakers get close to their subjects only to retreat when things get truly dangerous.