Ana Murugarren / Spain / 2017 / 111 mins
Part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival 2018
Set against the stormy backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this tale of regret and redemption is based upon the Ramiro Pinilla novel The Fig Tree. Our protagonist Rogelio is a bad old bastard from the Fascist Falangist party, crushing out Communists with the heel of his boot and the lead from his gun wherever he and his band of autocratic officers find them… until one day, the glowering gaze of a 10-year-old is enough to convince Rogelio that the youngster plans to avenge the deaths of his brother and father as soon as he is old enough to wield a weapon.
This prompts a colossal sea change in Romelio’s outlook and conduct, as he goes from a trigger-happy instrument of terror, complete with clipped moustache and leather-gloved fist, to a pacific hermit who attracts the attention of pilgrims convinced he can work miracles. How does he leap from one extreme to the other? Via the cultivation of a fig tree sapling, of course! When painting this unlikely character arc, the book apparently dips in and out of Romelio’s psyche at will, elucidating the transformation for the reader, but (understandably, given the challenges of the medium) no such help is at hand here.
Instead, it’s a film of broad strokes. Fascists are depicted as snarling, murderous savages without an ounce of humanity, a snivelling snitch does his utmost to take on the literal characteristics of a rat and Rogelio’s rebirth as a pious hermit wouldn’t be complete without accompanying garb and facial hair. The cinematography is bold and brash, which works well in places but rather clobbers us over the head at others; the relentless torrential rainfall is a particularly over-egged metaphor, especially when the watering of the fig tree in question appears to be such a pivotal plot point.
Meanwhile, the score is ostentatiously 80s in its soaring guitar riffs and mammoth melodrama, meaning there’s no chance for nuance to thrive here at all. At the same time, these leaps of faith also skip over some rather serious plot tangles. Why exactly did Rogelio believe that nurturing a fig tree would absolve him of his sins? Did the boy actually harbour murderous intent? Has his self-imposed hermitage served its purpose? Does any of it actually matter, given the closing scenes?
The film raises some valid points about the futility of life and the certainty of death, as well as signposting the gaping wounds which scatter Spanish history and which those in authority still refuse to dress. However, it is alternatingly achieved with either too heavy a hand or too light a touch for it to be truly effective. Similarly, the film is jarringly caught between being a sombre inspection of injustice and a dark comedy laughing at itself. On both counts, some middle ground would not have gone amiss. As it stands, The Bastard’s Fig Tree appears to be an overly simplistic fable – but one which isn’t entirely clear on its own message.