“Palm Trees in the Snow” (2015) and “Neckan” (2015)
Over the last two days, I saw two fascinating movies about the end of Spanish colonial influence in Africa. Both are set in the mid-1950s, as Spanish power is diminishing and independence movements are on the rise. It’s rare to see a movie about modern Spanish colonialism, and here were two of them in two days!
“Palm Trees in the Snow” (2015, dir. Fernando González Molina, from Luz Gabás’ novel) is a plantation-gothic romance set on the fascinating island of Fernando Pó, off the west coast of Cameroon. It’s 1953. Kilian, a Spaniard living in the snowy Pyrenees, comes from an affluent family that sends its young men overseas to Fernando Pó to work on the cacao plantation (as management, of course, not labor). While there, Kilian falls in love with a local Bantu woman. Cut to 2003, and Clarence, the daughter of Kilian’s best friend, travels back to the island (now called Bioko) to solve a mystery about her father.
“Neckan” (2015, dir. Gonzalo Tapia) is another historical mystery reaching back into the mid-fifties, this time in Tetouan, on the north tip of Morocco. Santiago, a young lawyer from Spain, works for his father’s firm and travels to Morocco to find an heir to a family fortune. He comes in contact with a mysterious German fixer who arranges things so that Santiago learns some shocking truths about himself.
Both movies revealed things I didn’t know about Spanish colonialism in the modern era. “Palm Trees in the Snow” has all the racist and brutal clichés we’ve come to expect from tropical romances told from the European point of view. But the landscapes and seascapes (filmed on Grand Canary and the southwest coast of Colombia) are extraordinarily beautiful. It was an award-winning smash hit in Spain. The movie’s voiceover mentions that in the late 50s and early 60s, all Spaniards were deported from Bioko by Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Francisco Macías Nguema, who was one of the cruelest in the twentieth century. I wonder about the politics on Bioko now, and why the movie wasn’t filmed there.
“Neckan” is not as beautiful to look at, and it’s overly talky. But the historical investigation is fascinating, and some of the acting is so good, I almost forgot that virtually the entire plot emerges emerge from actors delivering paragraphs of explanation. Charles Sanjaime’s hotel manager is wonderfully crisp and attentive with just a trace of surly irony. Hermann Bonnín stole the show playing the mysterious Old Morocco Hand with a creepy verve and authority. Imagine a “Casablanca” where there are lots of secrets, everyone wears white, and the shady character is a combination of Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. That is the mood conveyed by Bonnin. Wow!