'Thirty Souls' ('Trinta Lumes'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Fascinating but diffuse.

Playing in Berlin’s Panorama section, Diana Toucedo’s fiction/documentary hybrid explores memory, loss and change via a study of a semi-abandoned Galician pueblo.

"Melancholic," "atmospheric," and "mysterious" are three adjectives often used to describe the region of Galicia in northwestern Spain, and they could just as easily be used to talk about the Galician-set Thirty Souls. A slow, evocative and very Galician meditation on many — perhaps too many — things, including memory, abandonment and death, Diana Toucedo’s first full-length film is full of wonderful things but feels unfocused, as though the director has been overwhelmed by the sheer thematic richness of what she found in front of her during the six years it took to shoot.

Nonetheless, Souls is a fest-worthy addition to the canon of mournful, visually compelling Galician documentaries as exemplified by Lois Patino’s 2013 Coast of Death.

It opens with its finest, most powerful sequence, as men with torches walk through the night shouting the name of Alba, a girl who has apparently gone missing. Their torches are pinpricks of light in the immensity of the darkness, their voices echoing dramatically around the mountains, and the viewer feels that they are the prelude to something really special. But it never quite arrives.

We are in the depopulated Galician hill village of O Courel, largely abandoned like so many villages in the region — a socio-economic tragedy that’s also an open invitation to poetically-inclined filmmakers like Toucedo. A voiceover, presumably that of Alba (Alba Arias) herself, meditates abstractly and rather tediously on ghosts, informing us that “the dead are all around us.” We witness at some length life as it goes on in O Courel, where few people remain, most of whom are elderly and stuck in their ways. An immense amount of time is spent on preparing a chicken for eating (Toucedo is fascinated by recording the slow processes of the countryside). A boar is hunted and killed. A dying way of life is being lamented.

But there also a young family with a toddler, to show us that O Courel has a future (the title refers to the 30 youngsters who still live in the area), and there is Alba herself and her friend Samuel, whom we see in a classroom, trying to invent a story. Souls, which really tries to pack it all in, and which would have benefited immensely from a clear throughline, is also about the stories, myths and legends that we, both collectively and individually, learn to tell ourselves and to believe in.

Souls is being touted as that increasingly common beast, the fiction-documentary hybrid, but on this evidence Toucedo would do better to stick to the documentary side of things. The fiction basically comes down to Alba’s disappearance, which works fine symbolically but offers little dramatically.

These people and their places are evocative enough without a fictionalized voiceover telling us what they stand for. In one potent sequence Alba and Samuel, keen to understand the relationship between the past of the pueblo and themselves, who are its future, explore the contents of a house that was abandoned in 1996 and left pretty much intact; in another, the poor boar is gutted. It’s pretty clear from such scenes that the dead are indeed all around us, and one fleeting shot of a pair of Wellington boots left by a back door is worth, in this case, a thousand words.

Where Thirty Souls really comes into its own is in its visuals, despite its occasional tendency to lapse into a natural-light darkness where it’s practically impossible to make anything out. (Metaphorical or not, a dark, shadowy screen is hard to justify.) There’s a great deal of fabled Galician weather, lovingly rendered, with its melting snow, dripping rain and wind, and terrific, sweeping landscape shots punctuate the story as transition shots, albeit with a too-predictable regularity.

Production companies: Lasoga Films, DianaToucedo Films, CRTVG
Cast: Alba Arias, Samuel Vilarino
Director, screenwriter: Diana Toucedo
Producer: Miguel A. Otero
Executive producers: Cristina Bodelón, Jaime Otero Romaní, Ignacio de Vicente, Diana Toucedo
Director of photography: Lara Vilanova
Editor: Ana Pfaff, Diana Toucedo
Composer: Sergio Moure de Oteyza
Sales: The Open Reel
Venue: Berlinale (Panorama)

In Galician
80 minutes