Directors: Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer
Running Time: 1:23
Release Date: 7/19/17 (limited); 8/18/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 17, 2017
In January of 2010, Martin Verfondern left his home in the small, mostly abandoned village of Santoalla, Spain, to do some shopping in the nearby town. People saw him in town. A woman reported seeing him in his car, heading back to the village. He did not return home. Martin's disappearance was the great mystery of the village, which, at the time, was home to exactly six people, including Martin: his wife Margo and family of four—an elderly man and woman, as well as their two adult sons—that lived in a neighboring house.
In an indirect way, Santoalla is a critique of whatever police department had jurisdiction over the village at the time Martin disappeared. There are, perhaps, three suspects who could have had something to do with the man's disappearance. The parents of the neighboring house were both older and never left their home, so that eliminates two of the five remaining villagers. Margo's wife didn't have a motive to harm her husband, so that leaves two. Just from the simple implementation of Occam's razor and the process of elimination, this paragraph has done more to figure out what happened to Martin than the police apparently did when Martin was reported missing.
There's nothing funny about what happened to Martin, but this documentary veers on unintentional comedy whenever his disappearance is discussed as a great mystery that no one can solve. It took directors Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer to talk to Margo and the neighboring family, a random forest fire more than four years after his disappearance, and increased media scrutiny of the apparent—and, by that point, confirmed—crime for anyone to figure out what happened. Even then, the case is only closed because of a confession.
It's unclear if the local police simply don't care about Santoalla, a rural farming village in the mountains of Northern Spain, because it is essentially abandoned or if the disappearance of a Dutch national, who broke the unspoken code of conduct in such a small place, wasn't high on their list of priorities. Either way, the whole affair points to massive failure on local law enforcement. That could have made for an interesting documentary, since it seems that even Becker and Mehrer knew what happened to Martin before it's officially ruled as a homicide.
At this point, I suppose an apology is in order to those who haven't figured out the answer to the mystery yet, especially in the context of discussing a movie that, in a confounding decision on the part of the filmmakers, revolves around the solving of that mystery. To be fair, the perpetrators and their allies aren't even subtle about it.
The movie is divided into interviews with Margo, news footage and home videos of her and Martin's life in the village, and attempts to talk to the neighboring family. Most of them remain quiet. The sons Julio, who tends to cows in countryside and has left his own family to care for his aging parents, and Carlos, a man with a mental disability, are stand-offish in their own way, although Julio is more than happy to take the filmmakers on a tour of his job in the place that he loves. Manolo, the patriarch of the family, can hardly speak anymore, even if he wanted to. In one of Martin's home movies, we see the old man raise his cane to strike Martin before the image becomes static.
Easily the most talkative of the bunch is Jovita, Manolo's wife, who might have one of the worst poker faces in the history of people with secrets to hide. Her favorite word is "nothing," as in "I know nothing." For someone who repeatedly says that, sometimes in the same thought, she certainly has plenty of supposedly incriminating stories about Martin—how he used to bother them, how he would have strangers come to the house whenever Margo was away, how he didn't respect the rules of the village. At one crucial point, the stories change, and she's suddenly telling a group of reporters about how Martin used to visit and dance with her. At another point, one of the filmmakers asks Jovita if she's scared about the idea that outsiders to the village might have killed her neighbor. She responds by saying that she has no reason to be scared. After all, she has "peace of mind" and a "clean conscience" that she has done nothing wrong.
This is, of course, an absurd and unnatural response to such a query, and at no point do Becker and Mehrer convince us that there's any legitimate mystery to be found here. That's the point of their narrative, though, and it infiltrates everything that might have made for an intriguing true-crime tale or an examination of how this most obvious case of foul play has affected Margo, who must live with knowing what all of us can determine. Santoalla tries to play detective when it doesn't need to, and in the process, the movie misses out on an abundance of alternative angles from which to approach this story.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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