Critics' Pick

Santoalla (NR)

Documentary 82 min. July 19, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer's quiet, immersive true-crime mystery doc opens with video more terrifying than fictionalized "found footage" horror ever manages: A man is walking through the rubble and ruin of the abandoned village of Santoalla, in the mountains of the Galicia region of northwestern Spain. We see, from the perspective of his camera, stone homes buckled and broken, the only life around his own shadow on the dirt path. He turns a corner, the sun flares across the lens, and suddenly a thin man steps forward, wielding a pole or a bat. "You're going to do it now?" a voice asks, off-screen. "In front of the camera?" Before the questions are fully spoken, the thin man is swinging his weapon.
Santoalla is the story of a Danish couple, Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, who got away from it all by relocating to a place everyone else had left — and then got caught in a decades-long feud with the only other family in town. In 2010, after years of tension and a legal battle, Verfondern went missing. Pool was left to wonder: Did he crash over a cliff? Abandon her to a new life? Or might the Rodriguezes have murdered him?

We get the answer, eventually. Despite that opening, and the potential of a crime, Becker and Mehrer's film is more about place and silence than it is about tension or psychology. Instead, what compels most here is new footage of the town and its handful of residents, especially the sight of Pool, in the ruin she and Verfondern made into a home, taking care of herself, her garden and her animals. She's a ghost made flesh.
Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer Carlos Rodríguez, Jovita Rodríguez, Julio Rodríguez, Manolo Rodríguez, Margo Verfondern Cristina De La Torre, Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer Oscilloscope Laboratories

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