‘Akelarre’: Hunting for Witches in Spain

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I sometimes think of Netflix as the streaming version of Miramax, given the enormous amount of films and television series they produce and acquire worldwide. But unlike the much-maligned Weinstein siblings—who would buy films left and right to later shelve them so that no other studios could get their hands on them—these films and TV shows have a shot at finding an audience. The challenge is finding them in Netflix’s vast algorithm-driven library and recommendation system.

But seek and you will find hidden gems like the Spanish-Argentinian co-production, Akelarre.

Set in 1609, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, Pablo Agüero’s atmospheric, tense and performance-driven historical drama opens with an image of burning pyres. Inquisitor Rostegui (Àlex Brendemühl) and his scribe Salazar (the wonderfully venomous Daniel Fanego) are scouring the Basque Country in search of witches that can reveal the secrets of the Witches Sabbath or akelarre. “There’s more sorcery in the Basque country than in the rest of the world,” one of them claims.

Six girls from a village are taken prisoner and interrogated one by one by Rostegui. Led by Ana (Amaia Aberastegui), the girls come up with a Scheherazade-like plan to keep their torturers distracted until the next full moon when the village men are scheduled to return from the sea. The plan backfires yet that doesn’t stop Ana from engaging in a beautifully played battle of wits with her inquisitor, leading to a delirious climax in a forest.

Amaia Aberastegui as Ana in ‘Akelarre’

Akelarre’s setup of a group of women brought to trial by a fanatical religious figure and the bond that grows between them echoes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—Fanego even looks like Paul Scofield’s inquisitor in Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 film adaptation of the play—and the historic setting and subject matter may evoke Robert Eggers’ outstanding debut The Witch (2015). Out of those ingredients, Agüero and co-writer Katell Guillou have crafted a unique take to the story.

Akelarre may not quite be a horror film, but it does have moments of sheer terror, of the kind humans inflict on each other in the name of their ideological, religious and even ethnic prejudices. Agüero keeps most of the action confined to two separate, incredibly claustrophobic spaces—the girls’ cell and the inquisitor’s chamber—opting to shoot these scenes in extreme close-ups creating a harsh contrast between those spaces that inhibit their freedom and the outdoors where they are free to roam and dance and be themselves. 

Akelarre offers a veiled critique of Spain’s centuries-old disdainfully autocratic treatment of its linguistically different autonomic regions. It also gives a voice to these persecuted women—one of the film’s greatest pleasures is to watch them use their own culture and old stories to figure out ways to escape their predicament and beat a patriarchal system that oppresses and kills them. Add to this the sometimes somber soundtrack and fantastic songs inspired by the Basque folk tradition from Aranzuza Calleja and Maite Arritajauregui, and you have in Akelarre a unique cinematic treat.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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