Marine biologist, Maria Vara (Elena Anaya), is traveling aboard a ferry to the Spanish island of El Hierro for a short holiday with her five year old son, Diego (Kaiet Rodríguez), when he mysteriously disappears. When attempts by Maria, crew, and police fail to find the child, the following months see Maria suffer a series of emotional upheavals that include paranoia, nightmares, and aquaphobia. When Maria receives a phone call from the island police announcing that they have recovered the body of a young boy from the sea, whom they strongly believe to be Diego, she returns to the island with her sister, Laura (Bea Segura) to identify the corpse but is adamant that it is not that of her child. Forced to stay on the island for three days whilst the police await the arrival of a judge to witness DNA tests, Maria discovers that another young boy named Mateo (Hugo Arbues) has also disappeared. Searching the isolated community for any clues that might lead to the discovery of Diego, Maria believes she spies her son in a passing camper trailer. Further investigations leads her to suspect that the islanders may know more than they let on regarding the boys' fates but a series of ghostly portents, dreams, and fragmented memories that begin to threaten her sanity soon reveal that the truth is far more sinister than a simple case of abduction.
Director Gabe Ibáñez ably translates the skills garnered from a career involving promotional videos to a first full length feature that appears heavily influenced by the likes of fellow Spaniards, Julio Medem (SEX AND LUCIA), Alejandro Amenabár (ABRE LOS OJOS; THE OTHERS), Guillermo del Toro (CRONOS; MIMIC), and Juan Antonio Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE) with its themes of child loss, abduction, and Jungian archetypes and symbolism. This latter theme is profoundly expressed by the director’s intense use of visuals that incorporate the use of insects and migratory birds as metaphors for abduction and spiritual resolution. Prevalent, too, is the clever use of colour; in this case drab and dark blues, bright reds, and dull yellows to express intuition, thoughts and feeling, and incomplete colour grouping of the primaries, denoted by an absence of green, in scenes that reflect Maria’s need for closure.
As expected from a filmmaker with a clear aesthetic vision, his choice of cinematographer is all-important to the finished canvas and the lens of Alejandro Martinez is well up to the task with wonderful panoramic shots of the beaches and extraordinary underwater scenes depicting an array of ominous fish and fauna that convey both beauty and melancholy and in muted tones relative to the emotional and spiritual state of the film’s protagonist.
Elana Anaya is an inspired choice for the lead, having previously displayed an acting range beyond her years as the provocative babysitter, Belén, in SEX AND LUCIA (2001), and once again infuses her character with a combination of sadness and vulnerability and at the same time captivating the audience with her beauty. Nowhere is this more evident than a haunting sequence in which a naked Maria takes her first underwater swim as she attempts to come to terms with her grief. Despite the inherent eroticism, magnified by the orchestral underscoring of Zacarías M. de la Riva, the scene never descends into exploitation and remains relevant to the film’s narrative, with its dreamlike suffusion of the thematic cycles of water, birth, and death tying up with Maria’s need for individuation.
HIERRO has received its fair share of negative reviews from the press who have decried the director’s heavy use of metaphor and symbolism as excuses to over-complicate the narrative of, what they feel is, yet another relatively empty thriller in the “parent seeks missing child” genre. That’s an unfair assessment, and whilst the film does fall a little flat in the chills department, possibly due to an over-reliance on numerous camera cuts that negate any fluid build up of tension, the film is worth catching for its sense of portentous foreboding, isolation, and a sublime central performance from Elana Anaya.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Gabe Ibáñez
Spanish language with English subtitles/ Spain / 2009 / 89 Mins / Colour / Rated 15
Region 2 / PAL
An Optimum Home Entertainment DVD release
Region 2 DVD (UK)
Release date July 26th, 2010