Though the contribution of Spanish cinema to genre is perhaps not the most prolific it is often powerful and significant, from Alejandro Amenábar’s cryptic Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), J A Bayona’s disturbing El Orfanato (The Orphanage), to Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] and Pedro Almodóvar’s La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In), both of them shocking for very different reasons, and Álex de la Iglesia’s wicked Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi (Witching & Bitching).
Now as Almodóvar produced de la Iglesia’s 1993 subversive debut feature Acción mutante so he in turn now produces Errementari, the debut feature of director Paul Urkijo Alijo, subtitled for its English language release The Blacksmith and the Devil, with its UK premiere opening the Saturday morning of Glasgow Film Festival’s FrightFest strand.
It is a peaceful village nestled under the cliffs at the misty foot at the mountains in the Basque Country a short few years after the end of the Carlist civil war over the succession of the Spanish throne; a poor town of simple people where the church bell was melted down to make weapons, now the men have returned, those that survived.
Among them was Patxi (The Skin of the Wolf‘s Kándido Uranga), nicknamed “the Hammer,” a blacksmith whose life has been marked by tragedy and now lives as a reclusive beyond the river. A deeply traditional people who believe in the living spirit of a powerful God, the blacksmith is shunned with whispers that the devil lives behind the barricades around his workshop.
A stranger arrives in town, the government official Alfredo Ortiz (Ramón Aguirre), seeking a chest of gold stolen from the Tsar of Russia; his suspicion points to the blacksmith, and he uses the weight of his position to stage an investigation, easily rousing the ignorant peasants who stumble in blindly and fall foul of traps, but a young girl, Usue (brilliant newcomer Uma Bracaglia), witnesses something very different when she is caught inside the walls.
Religion running through the veins and in every breath of those around her, Usue’s stubborn refusal to bow to the expectation of sheepish obedience sets her at odds with the teaching of the church, befriending snakes, stealing the sacramental wine for her picnic lunch with her doll Mathilde, standing up to the bullying boys of the village and challenging the declaration by Don Mateo (José Ramón Argoitia) that her mother burns in Hell.
With passionate, hot-blooded performances, from the opening animation of woodcuts rendered in fiery red telling of a man so fierce the Devil would fear him to the shadows of the smithy, the rhythmic ring of the hammer on steel amplified by the anvil and echoing through the chambers as angry sparks shower down, every darkened corner contains mystery, secrets and deception.
And in those flickering shadows lurks Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy), a messenger from Hell who cannot return empty handed but who has met his match in Patxi and Usue, kindred spirits in their strident defiance which sets them apart from the foolish, greedy villagers who have been stirred into a rabble by Ortiz.
With images of villagers with flaming torches hunting down those at whom the finger points and visions of Hell and the damned, Errementari is a visual feast throughout, the script by Alijo and Asier Guerricaechevarría engaging, moving and surprisingly funny as the mere mortals take their gleeful turn at torturing the junior demon.
An observation of the nature of kindness and weakness of people and the power and fragility of faith, the priest standing by silently when abuses of power are enacted then tying to claim precedence while the blacksmith stands resolute, Errementari is one of the most enjoyable films of the FrightFest weekend and well deserving of a far wider audience.