Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Spanish Cinema Now ‘09: Hierro

El Hierro is about as southwest as you can go and still be in Spain. Part of the Canary Islands archipelago, its economy is largely dependent on tourism. Yet it seems to have the most ominous looking beaches and distinctly uninviting locals in Gabe Ibáñez’s moody thriller, Hierro (trailer here), which screens during the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Spanish Cinema Now series.

Though it is never explained why five year-old Mateo’s father is out of the picture, it scarcely seems to matter. María, his marine-biologist mother, more than compensates, forging an especially close relationship with the boy. Since Mateo is fascinated by boats, María takes him on holiday to El Hierro, via the large ferry that services the island. Tragically, when María briefly dozes off, she awakens to a parent’s greatest nightmare: a child vanished without a trace.

The local police go through the motions of searching, but to no avail. Time passes and a corpse fitting Mateo’s description washes up. María, now pretty much an emotional basket case, comes to identify the body, with her increasingly impatient sister along for dubious support. The only problem is the unfortunate boy in the morgue is not Mateo, which necessitates a lot of unexpected paperwork for the Hierro coppers, as well as a judge’s consent to take María’s DNA. Waiting for the judge to return, María starts investigating the suspicious islanders, discovering Mateo is not the first little boy to go missing under mysterious circumstances on the tight little island.

Water is an all-powerful and ever-present force in Hierro. Their mutual interest in all things marine had helped bond María and Mateo, yet whatever force ripped them apart (be it criminal or supernatural), seemingly involved the murky waters off the isle’s shore. As a result, María, the aquatic researcher, develops hydrophobia.

Ibáñez and cinematographer Alejandro Martínez certainly create an atmosphere of portentous foreboding. El Hierro’s black volcanic beaches look otherworldly and even María’s aquarium workplace looks dark and unsettling. Given the credits of co-producer Álvaro Augustín (which include The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Shiver), one might expect Hierro to fall squarely in the Spanish horror (sporror?) tradition. Yet it never really embraces a specific genre. It also gets suspiciously untidy as tries to preserve its big looming twist.

Hierro is definitely high-end genre filmmaking. Elena Anaya (perhaps recognizable to some from the Hollywood train-wreck Van Helsing) is quite convincing as the desperate mother and Ibáñez keeps the creepiness ratcheted up nicely. Still, many viewers will have a good idea where it is all heading. It is an excellent exercise in ambiance, but Hierro might not fully satisfy fans of Augustín’s previous cinematic imports. Spanish Cinema Now starts this Friday (12/4) at the Walter Reade Theater, with screenings of several contemporary Spanish films, including Hierro. Ibáñez’s film also screens again on Sunday (12/6).