‘Santoalla’ Review: Doc Examines a Disappearance in Rural Spain

One morning in 1997 after a two-year-long sojourn around Europe in a camper van, Dutch couple Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool woke up on a hillside in Galicia, in northern Spain and decided they’d found home. The village — little more than a collection of abandoned tumbledown structures clinging to the side of a mountain — was called Santa Eulalia, though even its name seemed to have collapsed in on itself, being more often referred to as Santoalla. Part of the attraction for the young couple, making a new, hippy-tinged, self-sufficient life for themselves, was its isolation. Not even the mailman delivered out there, so it’s hard to imagine how directing team Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer found their way. But in their debut documentary feature, this tiny hidden hamlet, and the even tinier human tragedy that unfolded within it, is brought to wider attention. While “Santoalla” is a small story, its poignancy resonates, like an echo finding its way through the peaks and valleys of this windswept, eternal landscape.

Unfolding in a chronologically shifting collage of interviews, imagery of the ruined village and its environs, and found footage — much of it shot by Martin himself over the years — the film is far from the most formally daring documentary of the year. But the undemonstrative classicism of the approach feels appropriate to a tale of bad blood, mistrust of outsiders, land and greed that is nearly as old as the hills in which it takes place. The story of Martin Verfondern’s 2010 disappearance (the film is a kind of true-crime éxposé, though the mystery’s solution is more prosaic than revelatory) is full of peculiar, lonely pathos: This was a power play that happened over an all-but-disregarded patch of land, between the only two families on earth who loved it.

Martin and Margo’s neighbors in Santoalla — its only other residents — were the Rodriguez family: Mother Jovita, a wizened elder, interviewed often…

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