The fact that some films’ plots can be neatly summarised in a couple of sentences can sometimes hide how good they are. A short précis might wrongly indicate that they are simple movies, with perhaps little to offer. Hierro is a case in point. Its story is easy to describe: a single mother (Elena Anaya) visits the island of El Hierro, the smallest and most southerly of the Canary Islands, and her son vanishes on the ferry trip there. Six months later, she is called back to the island to identify a recently-discovered body which matches his description. It is not her son. But she must stay over the weekend until a judge arrives so they can make a DNA comparison. Convinced the local police are covering something up; she decides to investigate on her own…
Hierro is Gabe Ibáñez’s first full-length feature – he has previously directed only short films. And it’s a remarkably assured debut. It’s a film with a clear aesthetic. The landscape of El Hierro is a dark, volcanic island of black beaches and black rocks, and its landscape provides one of the two colour motifs. The other is sea-green, inspired by María, the mother, who is a marine biologist. These two colours cast a grim and lugubrious mood, which fits the film’s story. El Hierro feels like an alien place, Maria is a stranger in a strange land, and the island’s inhabitants are clearly not like her. They don’t behave especially oddly, but there’s a clear disconnect between them and Maria – for all their offers of help, their seeming friendliness.
Although María believes her son to still be alive, it is not hope that drives the plot of Hierro. Maria suffers from dreams, nightmares in which she is underwater, or the world around her is water-logged. It’s a somewhat obvious metaphor – plainly she is ‘drowning’ in her dealings with the El Hierro local administration – but it’s forgivable because the film is so beautifully shot. Despite this, it’s María’s actions which drive the plot, and unravel the mystery of her son’s disappearance. Yet the film’s resolution is neither astonishing, nor especially obvious; but it does make perfect, logical sense. And in today’s world of cinema, there are few films which can say as such.
Hierro is low-key and slowly paced, but the wonderful cinematography and excellent cast make for a gripping film. It is not, as the DVD cover claims, a ‘supernatural thriller’. The dream sequences might perhaps suggest as much;
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but there’s nothing inexplicable in the mystery or its resolution. Hierro is a ‘psychological thriller’, and a very good one.
Finally, the DVD is being sold as “from the producers of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage” – a tagline becoming increasingly common on film posters. Why should viewers care about who produced a film? Producers have no artistic input. Knowing that a film came in on-budget will not inspire people to watch it. The information is completely meaningless. Why not have ‘film stock provided by the same supplier who provided the film stock for Titanic’? Clearly it’s not enough that producers make pot-loads of money from successful films, they want some of the credit too. They want the audience to know that their business acumen – or lack of, because to be fair we’ve no idea how well-managed the production was – was applied to another artistic endeavour. The contorted justifications businesses use to promote their products seem to make less sense every day…