Film Review: Palmeras en La Nieve (2014)
The 1950s. Kilian (Mario Casas) leaves the snowy mountains of Huesca for the Spanish-African island colony of Fernando Poo, where he's to work on a cacao plantation with his father and brother Jacobo (Alain Hernández). On the plantation, where he works as a guard, he finds a decadent white hierarchy and local workforce dangerously close to snapping. At night he is introduced by his bonvivant brother to a wild party scene centred on the prostitution of native women. Seduced at first by all this, his sensitive nature eventually distances him from his brother's excesses and he falls for a beautiful local nurse. He soon finds out that falling in love with a local - especailly one engaged to be married - has its complications, as does juggling being an enforcer of the white regime and a moral human being at the same time.
Half a century later back in Huesca, Jacobo's daughter Clarence (Adriana Ugarte) finds pictures and letters belonging to her father and uncle, and decides to visit the island looking to piece together her family's past. The modern post-colonial Fernando Poo, now called Bioko, is in the grip of crippling poverty and political problems. There, Clarence uncovers a story of forbidden love and social upheaval, terminating in the 1968 uprising.
An adaptation of a Luz Gabás novel, this is a valiant Spanish attempt at a very un-Spanish kind of movie; the period melodrama.
Suitably it has hundreds, not dozens of extras, a score by an actual orchestra and takes epic helicopter shots of its locations.
The director, Fernando Gonzalez Molina (Tengo Ganas de Tì), goes for broke and varnishes every inch of the screen in beautiful scenery and period detail. Marco Casas has brooding presence in the sensitive but tortured role of Kilian.
However, at several points the film inexplicably inexplicably becomes a parody of itself, with ludicrously overblown scenes and acting. The Goya for silliest walk in the movies goes for Casas, who creaks around so stiffly you'd think he was double his age. It's unclear whether its a deliberate method-walk, but its more Benny Hill than English Patient.
Then there is the scene where we are introduced to the plantation for the first time. A racist white guard character jumps ontop of a truck and chops a boa constictor into sushi with a machete, before tossing its head at the timid workers and bellowing in full-on Tropic Thunder mode, 'is that what you're afraid of!?'
But the award for most unintentionally comical scene goes to a moment after the brothers' father's funeral. Sobbing to himself, childish Jacobo is approached by Macarena Garcais, whose love he has until now spurned. He attempts to grab her face and eat it. She points out that a) his father's funeral is hardly the moment and b) she's getting married to his friend, the respectfual botanist. So Jacobo turns away and runs into the jungle. But he doesn't just run into the jungle. He sprints into it, and just keeps going and going, in such a bizarre frenzy of dramatic music that it made me laugh out loud. This, I'm sure wasn't the intended emoticon.
Overall, Palms in the Snow is to be lauded for its scope and ambition. It attempts to tackle the complex palette of emotions in the relationship between colonizer and colonized. But the film overplays its hand, failing to avoid horrendous period melodrama cliche, and forcing its actors into parodical hamminess, while riffing on queasy cultural stereotypes. In particular, the scenes suggesting the growing tension between the landed gentry and native workforce are handled with lumpishness, and the uplifting moments of cultural symposium - 'Oh my God- she's dancing with the natives' - feel misjudged and off-key. So all in all, to be enjoyed for all the wrong reasons.