“Life is a tornado. Peace, fury…and then peace again.”
Fernando González Molina’s Spanish romantic drama film Palm Trees in the Snow (Spanish: Palmeras en la nieve, 2015) is based on the 2012 novel of the same name, written by Luz Gabás. Its premise spans decades, and captures a multitude of topics that never cease to mould its form, including mystery, tragedy, romance, drama and civil unrest. With its 163 minutes of running time, the film has the room to play around with the novel’s atmosphere, capturing its slicing fragility. But how has the book transalated into film?
Finding a clue about her family’s past, Clarence (Adriana Ugarte) decides to travel from Huelva in Spain, to Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, where both her uncle Kilian (Mario Casas) and estranged father Jacobo (Alain Hernández) worked on a cocoa plantation. The hostility she’s faced with paints a picture of the civil unrest both men witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s. She will have to brace herself for the true reason her uncle left his soul in the arms of a local, Bisila (Berta Vázquez), all those years ago. But will the questions gnawing away at her slash open barely-healed wounds?
The movement towards independence in Equatorial Guinea, making up most of the antagonistic forces in the story, began to gain resonance at the end of 1967. The former colony of Spain held parliamentary elections in September 1968, proclaiming its independence the following month. Francisco Macías Nguema, the newly-elected president, took the opportunity to tip his new power into a dictatorial one, pushing through a constitution that named him president for life in July 1972.
In the period that followed (1975-77), the country succumbed to chaos and horror, with its numerous arrests and executions, subsequently leading to the citizens’ mass evacuation. Another series of events, relevant to the film itself, was the repatriation of the country’s nationals, who had been working as labourers on Equatorial Guinea’s plantations.
With its intriguing mystery and the portrayal of a woman setting out into the mouth of an enraged lion, the film is reminiscent of Green Frontier (2019), similarly toying with the tantalising pull of the jungle. This pleasant discovery is heightened by Lucas Vidal’s cinematic music, and Xavi Giménez’s warm-toned cinematography.
However, despite its soft exterior, the film is anything but coy. It extends a welcome to its audience in the form of a scene that sets heedless hearts on edge, trifling with our surprising investment in the characters’ tragic process of wilting beneath the hot African sun.
With much of the film’s exertion focused on the carving of a fleshy bond between Kilian and Bisila, it’s astonishing how fast-paced and engrossing its direction is. This mastery can be traced back to clever and succinct dialogue, never straying too far from reality – even in the name of romance, which one could be persuaded into thinking was an extra on an otherwise action-packed set. The brilliance of such two-dimensionalism appears to be a common occurrence in Spanish productions, with Palm Trees in the Snow not lacking any of the electrifying suspense and artful friction of Oriol Paulo’s The Invisible Guest (2016).
That same tension bleeds into a skin-crawling depiction of the work conditions on plantations, which still strays far from the raw portrayal of slavery in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013). What it does dip into is an unsettling racial clash that sees the people of Equatorial Guinea rise against their oppressors. In that, the film is deeply rousing, presenting the strength and justice of a united front against racism and discrimination. Such changing of the tides must naturally bring about the chilling deformation of a once-innocent young protagonist.
With its bountiful visuals and invigorating story, the film would be perfect if not for a few blurry elements that leave one more dumbfounded than enthralled, such as one particularly dubious time jump. However, it does little to take away from the film’s noteworthy immersiveness.