With Europe and America flirting with fascism in ways we haven’t seen since the McCarthy Era, here’s a sour and generally unsatisfying parable set in the Spanish Civil War to remind us of how these things go down and how quickly their lessons are forgotten.
Ana Murugarren’s Spanish film, “The Bastards’ Fig Tree,” based on a Ramon Pinilla novel, is about a members of a fascist murder squad so shaken by a child who watched him kill his parents that he becomes a hermit and nurtures the fig tree the boy planted over their graves — for decades.
The promise of that title, of a modern man becoming a hermit to spare himself the revenge of a child who will grow up determined to avenge his family, is one of poignant reflection, repentance and maybe a hint of whimsy.
But it’s hard to lighten the tone after we’ve watched Rogelio, played with a guilty grimace and a twinkle by Karra Elejalde of “Timecrimes,” dispatch multiple “Reds” in the brutal late-night murder missions Franco’s Falangists carried out against teachers, activists or anybody else fingered by a snitch whose motives were never questioned.
Rogelio wasn’t an officer, he was just one of the trigger-men. The rich hidalgo in charge (Mikel Losada) did the driving. And sniveling Ermo (Carlos Areces) was the snitch, who denounced anybody whose land or house he coveted.
Don Pedro Alberto may declare, “We don’t kill kids, and that’s that,” (in Spanish, with English subtitles) sparing the little boy (Marcos Balgañón Santamaría). But Rogelio knows knows better. He insists they shoot the child as well.
“You’re going to kill me…in six years, when you turn 16, aren’t you?” Rogelio demands of the child. “Have you chosen a method?”
The boy just fixes him with a “Danny doesn’t live here Mrs. Torrence” stare — hate and accusation incarnate.
When the right wing hit squad took his brother and father, he slipped out after them. When they gunned them down in the rain, he watched. And when they left, the ten year-old spent all night digging their graves. He planted a fig sapling there to remember them.
Rogelio isn’t exactly wracked by guilt and doesn’t show a great deal of fear. But he takes the implicit threat in the child seriously. It’s the wife of the newly-converted (insincere) Falangist mayor, Cipriana (Pepa Aniorte of “Volver”) who gets in his head. She’s sure he’s had a graveside conversion.
“Our Lady spoke to you tonight?”
No, she didn’t. No, he hasn’t repented. No, the kid isn’t speaking. So Rogelio fixates on that damned tree, which cows or wildlife might munch to death and Ermo is anxious to pull up. He takes on the job of ensuring it gets watered and becomes round-the-clock guardian of a fig sapling in a remote field outside of Getxo, Bilbao.
He abandons his murderous duty, but not his Make Spain Great Again hat, uniform or pistol.
He’s entirely too profane and trigge- happy to admit it, but Cipriana knows.
“You’re a hermit paying for your sins!”
Murugarren, an editor turned writer-director, finally hits on a tone that suits this dark but potentially comic subject in the ensuing decades of the story, as Rogelio becomes a famous “tourist attraction” hermit, adopted by the town but keeping the dark secret of why he’s really guarding this fig tree.
His beard grows, the kid leaves home to go to seminary (at Rogelio’s desperate, self-serving insistence) and festivals and fairs are thrown on his hermitage, this plot of land with the fig tree and two ugly reminders of Spain’s past hidden beneath it. Pilgrims seek “miracles” at the hands of this cynical assassin, who never really reforms.
There are many places she could have taken this story of guilt, redemption, the lack of remorse of the “winners” and the short memories of everybody else. Perhaps they were all too conventional for the novel and the script she wrote from it.
What all concerned wound up with was a parable without a righteous payoff, a frustrating film that seems more aimless than it rightfully is, that plays darker than it wants to be.
As Rogelio takes on the hermit’s rags, he almost grasps the search for truth that comes with the job. Questioning a priest is as close as “The Bastards’ Fig Tree” (“La higuera de los bastardos”) comes to delivering a moral to the story.
“What do priests do when they get the urge to kill?”
The priest answers, “Cause a war so others kill for you.”
Mururgarren has made a “Belle Epoque” for time too dark to support it, a grim grasp at whimsy that isn’t there and probably not the fable about fascism that Western Civilization needs or even wants to see right now.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, nudity, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Pepa Aniorte, Carlos Areces, Mikel Losada, Andrés Herrera
Credits: Written and directed by Ana Murugarren, based on a Ramon Pinilla novel. A Dark Star release.
Running time: 1:43