As they do, the teacher’s ten-year-old boy gives the evil eye to Pedro’s offsider, Rogelio (Karra Elejalde) who is so unsettled that he wants to see the boy meet the same fate as his father. Pedro refuses, and they drive away to a nearby field where the teacher and his eldest boy are executed. Unbeknownst to the assassins, the younger son has followed them and witnessed his father’s death. Unable to shake the piercing look of the boy’s stare, Rogelio returns to the field where he encounters Ermo who tells him that the boy single-handedly dug a grave and buried his father and brother. There’ planted in the fresh grave, Rogelio sees a fig sapling, and so his obsession with the boy and the fig tree begins.
So far, this comedy-drama probably sounds like it’s way more drama than comedy, but as the story unfolds the whimsy and the situation grows and the comic nature of the story emerges. Consumed by guilt, and urged on by the Cipriana, the dissatisfied wife of a local official, Rogelio becomes the custodian of the fig tree, keeping watch over it day and night to protect it from the lugubrious and avaricious Ermo as well as his fellow Falangists for whom it becomes a symbol of their dreadful deeds. When the civil war ends and his compatriots all take up positions in the local government, Rogelio and his fig tree become local legends and, with Cipriana’s help, his hermit-like existence takes on a religious status that draws pilgrims from all over.
In addition to directing the film, Murugarren has adapted the screenplay for this lovely fantasy from a novel by Basque writer Ramiro Pinilla. She handles the fine balance between the drama and the comedy with an expertise that makes the story compelling, often to the point of suspense as the stakes associated with the growing fig tree escalate. Elejalde is perfect as the assassin turned saviour and he finds a wonderful place where his existence seems to float between the devotion of the religious pilgrims and the determination of the former Falangists to eradicate both Rogelio and his tree.
The rest of the cast are equally strong, with Areces’ Ermo being a decidedly nasty little man whose greed continues to grow as the film goes on, until he thinks he gets what he wants in the final desperate and ironically comic image of the film. Losada is chilling as Pedro and his self-centred ambition grows just as much as Ermo’s greed, made all the more unsettling by his Hitleresque sweep of hair and black moustache. And as Cipriana, Pepa Aniorte sits nicely in the background as the true engine of the story, driving Rogelio on to the redemption he so fervently desires.
The look of the film is rich and lush with beautiful Art Direction from Julius Lázaro and elegant Cinematography by Josu Inchaustegui. This is an unassuming and surprising film that has much to say about the power of guilt and regret as well as forgiveness and the potential for redemption in all of us, even those who have committed terrible deeds. It’s ability to tell a story of death and corruption at the hands of political fanatics whilst poking fun at the flimsy nature of religious zealots is equally due to the astutely judged performance by Elejalde and the deft hand of writer/director Murugarren. Don’t be fooled by the trailer for this film which doesn’t quite capture the tone or the sensibility of the story. Instead, see it for yourself and, hopefully, be as pleasantly surprised as I was.