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 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. While the Danes, Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, establish a farmstead and tend to their livestock, the only Santoallans left, the Rodriguez family, insist that in their village, you can’t just go moving rocks that aren’t on your specific property. In 2010, after years of tension and a legal battle involving money owed to the town’s residents by a logging company, Verfondern went missing after he had driven off for supplies. Pool was left to wonder: Did he crash over a cliff? Abandon her to a new life? Or might a Rodriguez 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. When the truth is revealed, don’t expect much about the specifics of the case. 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. Wandering the crumbled city, she’s a ghost made flesh, keeping at it after all other life has fled.
We meet Verfondern in vintage human-interest news footage about the couple’s project to create what he called “a Noah’s Ark” in a depopulated urban space reclaimed by nature; we also see him in footage shot by him and Poole — playing his guitar, laboring on their home, grousing about those neighbors. It’s chilling to realize how their odd intractability has snapped something in him. There’s no one else in that town, but that town still wasn’t big enough for all of them.