Review: A couple’s dreams of paradise turn tragic in the unsettling ‘Santoalla’

Margo Pool in the documentary “Santoalla.”
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Film Critic

Paradise may exist in the next life, but the dream of heaven right here on Earth inevitably comes with strings attached, often tragic ones.

Documentaries on this phenomenon, whether it be Stanley Nelson’s 2006 film on Jonestown or 2013’s smartly titled “The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden,” are inevitably involving, and “Santoalla” is a strong addition to the group.

Nominally focused on one man’s mysterious disappearance, “Santoalla” is really concerned with cultures in collision, with what happens when dreams of paradise clash, good intentions become unhinged and the darker angels of our nature gain the upper hand.

First-time feature filmmakers Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer co-directed, produced and shot the movie, with Becker doing the editing and writing the score as well.


This concentration of tasks gives “Santoalla” an intensity of focus that helps the storytelling, as does the fact that Becker and Mehrer lived in the tiny Spanish village of Santa Eulalia (Santoalla for short) for months at a time to make sure they got the story right.

Providing voice-over is Margo Pool. By the time she talks extensively to the filmmakers in 2013, her husband, Martin Verfondern, has been missing for three years, despite extensive searches by Spanish authorities.

Though she has no proof, Margo suspects that members of the Rodriguez family had a hand in Martin’s absence. Not only are they the people who live next door but they are also the only other people in the village, which gives this story a lot of its tension and interest.

The story of how Margo and Martin, a sophisticated Dutch couple who met at a protest rally outside Amsterdam, ended up in this remoter than remote hamlet in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain takes up “Santoalla’s” initial sections.

As Margo tells it, she and Martin were fed up with life in Holland, with its crowds and costs, yearning instead for “a quiet life without rules, without people who tell you what you can do, what you can’t do.”

The couple sold their home, bought a camper van and, as a selection of their snapshots illustrates, spent two years touring Europe, looking for that ideal spot.

Almost by accident, they stumbled across tumbled-down, crumbling Santoalla in 1997, and it was love at first sight. “I still remember the first time we came here,” says Margo, her voice glistening years after the fact. “Martin thought we had found the perfect place.”

The village had once been prosperous, but by the time the Dutch couple arrived, a lack of economic opportunity had driven almost everyone out. Only the Rodriguez family, living for generations by raising cattle, was still in town.


Though patriarch Manolo is too old to speak on camera by the time the filmmakers arrive, and one son, Carlos, “a bit slow,” does not talk either, “Santaolla” benefits from the access filmmakers had to the other side of the story.

Speaking for themselves are Carlos’ brother Julio, a man in love with the land, and voluble matriarch Jovita, who insists her motto has always been “do good no matter to whom.”

Martin and Margo’s decision to settle in such a remote area came to the attention of the Spanish media, and TV crews visited them in both 1998 and 2002; this record of everyone’s states of mind is an invaluable part of “Santoalla.”

In 1998, Martin is the picture of brash confidence, bursting with utopian plans to turn this part of the world into a self-supporting “destination for rural tourism” where like-minded folk from everywhere would flock for a taste of the good life.


By 2002, the Rodriguez family’s sense of being disregarded, their wariness at Martin’s “I know what’s best” attitude, has grown more visible, as has Martin’s frustration at what he considers to be the family’s obstructionism and foot-dragging. According to Margo, as the years went on, these qualities intensified on both sides.

Though “Santoalla” does eventually reveal what happened to Martin, that’s not what this unsettling film is about. Rather, it focuses on how the best intentions toward humanity are not enough if an ability to actually get along with fellow human beings is not part of the mix.




No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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