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A reminder that Spanish cinema can still paint on a large canvas, Palm Trees in the Snow is Spain’s best stab yet at an Out of Africa-style colonial/imperial romance. But the pleasures of this rangy drama are largely those of pastiche, residing in its often spectacular visuals and well-crafted set-pieces rather than in its generation-spanning storyline, which has obviously been calculated to manipulate the emotions, but rarely does so in any meaningful way. Given that Spain’s colonial history has barely been tackled on film, this represents something of a missed opportunity. None of which will matter very much to Tree’s planters, who have seen more than a two million admissions and counting since its late December bow.
Part of the film’s lack of any distinctive character might be because the director, Fernando Gonzalez Molina, has previously shot only bland, commercially-driven comedies. There’s no previous evidence that he can stir up the deeper emotions, and the slick but superficial Trees rarely does so.
Based on the best-selling novel by Luz Gabas, the film is largely set on the island of Fernando Poo (now called Bioko) during the declining years of its colonization by the Spanish. Mostly delivered via flashback, it follows the discovery by the young, idealistic Clarence (Adriana Ugarte) of a fragment of an old letter which shows that her aging, addled uncle Killian (Celso Bugallo) has been secretly despatching money to an island family. Despite the advice of her mother, the older Julia (Petra Martinez) not to go, Clarence turns up in the tropics and in true postcolonial style, she’ll learn that what’s been going on under the apparently benign surface is actually rather horrible.
Back in 1954, the younger Killian (Mario Casas) leaves his home in the snow-capped mountains of Huesca in northern Spain (there’s no particular reason why they should hail from there, but it does deliver a catchy title) to go and oversee the family’s cocoa plantations. LIke his father Anton (sensitively played by vet Emilio Gutierrez Caba), Killian’s a decent sort of chap who makes a good stab of negotiating the islanders’ ‘authentic’ culture, even though it reaches the screen mostly as the standard exotic dances and rituals.
Killian’s suave, slimeball brother Jacobo (Alain Hernandez), Clarence’s father, is a dastardly, philandering racist with a slim moustache and an eye for the ladies, who’s unaccountably being pursued by the otherwise level-headed younger Julia (Macarena Gomez), an under-exploited talent in Spanish cinema, and best-known to foreign viewers for Pablo Berger’s silent Snow White. Out in the jungle, Killian will come across Bisila (Berta Vazquez) sitting demurely next to a waterfall, awakening in him a little of that ole tropical passion in a relationship which, for cultural and plot reasons, they have to keep secret. A couple of too-large coincidences over the final half hour rob the film of much of its accumulated effect, but there’s enough going on to justify the length of a film that runs at close to three hours.
Colony yarns have to take care not to fall into black/white, good/bad divisions if they aren’t to become mere parody, and Sergio G. Sanchez’s script (he is also responsible for Juan Antonio Bayona’s superior The Orphanage and The Impossible) at least makes a game attempt to address some of colonialism’s complexities as Spanish Guinea shifts towards independence and the black/white power relations change, as indeed do the relationships between men and women: Trees dutifully takes politically correct aim at both racism and sexism. There indeed are some genuinely powerful scenes to be found in Trees: one in which Julia dances with other women, forgetting the racial differences in a way that the men seem unable to, a powerful scene at the dying Anton’s bedside, or an eleganty-crafted sequence involving a snake casually left in Killian’s room as a rite of passage.
The script dutifully ticks the plot point boxes, including the mysterious mark on the older Killian’s body which will have to be explained. It effortfully labors at profundity once or twice, as in its repeated references to turtles which return each year across thousands of miles of ocean. because home is where the heart is
Lucas Vidal’s score is as lush (and sometimes as soppy) as the rain-drenched vegetation of the island, and though rarely as attractive, it does more to drive the emotions than most of the performances. Mario Casas has carved out a niche for himself as a hulk with a heart, but too often he plays things in a low-key, mumbling way as though afraid that too much emotion will pop all the buttons off his shirt. There’s plenty of interest in Killian, a character who churns with uncertainties about his true identity, but Casas can’t do it justice as the film’s emotional heart. Gutierrez Caba apart, the strongest turns are from Gomez, Luis Callejo, looking like Steve Buscemi as the sadistic plantation overseer, Gregorio, and Vazquez as a character painfully caught in the cultural crossfire.
Visually, this has to be one of the most spectacular Spanish films ever made, largely on account of the location, which is rendered with crystal clarity by Xavi Gimenez whether at the level of a leaf or a sweeping aerial shot, whilst cannily bathing the earlier scenes in a nostalgic golden hue. One scene shows a local band featuring, in the background, possibly the coolest guitarist ever committed to film.
Production companies: Nostromo Pictures, Atresmedia Cine, Telefonica Studios, Warner Bros. Pictures International
Cast: Mario Casas, Adriana Ugarte, Macarena Garcia, Alain Hernandez, Berta Vazquez, Emilio Gutierrez Caba
Director: Fernando Gonzalez Molina, based on the novel by Luz Gabas
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sanchez
Producers: Mercedes Gamero, Adrian Guerra
Executive producers: Gabriel Arias Salgado, Andres Calderon, Axel Kuschevatzky, Nuria Valls
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Anton Laguna, Patricia Arango, Serafin Gonzalez
Costume designer: Loles Garcia Galean
Editor: Irene Blecua, Veronica Callon
Composer: Lucas Vidal
Sales: Film Factory
No rating, 163 minutes
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