The biggest outpouring of goodwill at FrightFest was reserved for Paul Urkijo Alijo, director of the dark fantasy tale Irati. With a mid-afternoon screening scuppered by issues with the subtitles, it was moved to a late-night slot while the he and the FrightFest team beavered away behind the scenes to get it resolved. This sadly meant that there were perhaps fewer in the audience than there should have been, but those that remained were treated to a tremendous adult fairy tale full of heroic derring-do and sumptuous visuals, and the filmmaker got a deserved moment of triumph after a testing day.
Set in the Basque region in the depths of the Dark Ages, it established a clash between the old Pagan mythology and the now-dominant Christianity. Eneko (Eneko Sagardoy) returns to the region to take his place as the Lord of the Vale following the death of his father, who made a pact with an ancient deity called Mari in return for aid defeating the invading Franks. Devoutly Christian, Eneko’s claim to his title his threatened by his father’s paganism, and he must locate and return the dead man’s remains from Mari’s domain so that a Christian burial be conducted. He seeks help from his childhood friend Irati (Edurne Azkarate), a woman deeply in tune with the natural world and a devotee of the ancient mysticism, who knows where Eneko’s father is currently interred.
What first strikes the viewer about Irati is the gorgeous, rich world that Urkijo Alijo paints on a very limited budget. Through a careful mix of locations, natural light, practical effects, and CGI, the 8th century Pyrenees are brought to vivid, immersive life. It’s a world that will be familiar to any fantasy devotees, but has a unique character all of its own. Drawing inspiration from art and literature from right down the centuries (this tale full of creatures from Basque legend is based on a distinctly contemporary artform, a graphic novel by Juan Luis Landa) it’s a spellbinding creation.
The central themes of Irati are embodied by the titular heroine and Eneko: the persistence of belief, and the co-existence between ancient religion and newer, more dominant ideals. It’s telling that despite this being a quest narrative with Eneko as the ostensible protagonist, the film is named for its unruly, mysterious guide; Tenzing Norgay to Eneko’s Edmund Hillary. This suggests where the film’s sympathies ultimately lie: with the mystical and the ancient. The idea of old deities withering as belief in them has dwindled down the centuries has been covered in contemporary fantasy before, by such luminaries as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in Small Gods and American Gods respectively, and Urkijo Alijo’s vision stands alongside those giants in quality, while its distinctive and personal narrative feels completely unique.
Eneko Sagardoy is impressive as the driven nobleman who comes to respect, admire, and undoubtedly fear the old ways, but the film rightly belongs to Edurne Azkarate, in what is remarkably her feature debut. Irati is earthy and mystical, desirable and scary, vengeful and vulnerable. She has her own distinct reasons beyond religious devotion why she adheres to the old ways, and Azkarate’s constantly flitting eyes and coiled-spring fight-or-flight tension radiates suspicion of this Christian man and his entitlement, yet is slowly won over by his bravery and sense of honour. It’s a difficult balance, especially given it’s a role of limited dialogue, but Azkarate is astonishing in what should be, if there’s any justice, a star-making performance.
Irati is a remarkable achievement on a comparatively tiny budget and a rare example of a fantasy narrative being every bit as fulfilling as the sense of spectacle. A thrilling adventure, a deeply strange and distinctive fairy tale, and the kind of love story that would have J.R.R. Tolkien’s quill all aquiver, it’s thoroughly magical.
Screened as part of Glasgow FrightFest