The Bastards’ Fig Tree (La higuera de los bastardos) (2017)

“We fascists are ordinary people too,” insists Rogelio (Karra Elejalde, TimeCrimes, 2007) near the beginning of Ana Murugarren’s The Bastards’ Fig Tree (La higuera de los bastardos).

At this early stage of the film, viewers may find it difficult to sympathise with such a claim. After all, Rogelio’s fascist friends, though certainly once ‘ordinary people’, have enriched themselves and acquired power by robbing and murdering others around the town of Getxo in the Basque country. Rogelio is a foot soldier in a Falangist death squad which, tipped off by local informers (with vested interests), rounds up suspected Republican ‘reds’ (teachers, judges, owners of attractive land) in the middle of the night. And yet if this character – a cold-hearted hunter of humans, a would-be child killer, and a loyal follower of the squad’s selfish, sadistic leader Pedro Alberto Echábarri (Mikel Losada) – at first seems entirely beyond the pale and beneath contempt, he will ever so gradually become a figure for whom the viewer can root. Indeed roots, as the fllm’s title implies, are key here, twisting deep into the earth below and supporting a country’s growth.

One night, when the squad seizes a teacher and his 16-year-old son for summary execution, Rogelio becomes convinced that the remaining 10-year-old son – who stares his persecutor in the eye – will grow up to take revenge, and so stalks the boy with the intention of killing him too. Instead, at the child’s mute request, Rogelio waters a fig sapling placed over the two dead men’s makeshift grave – and then finds himself staying to tend the young tree and to protect it from rapacious neighbour Ermo (Carlos Areces). In this endeavour, Rogelio has an ally in the new Mayor’s wife Cipriana (Pepa Aniorte), who disapproves of all the extrajudicial murders and who sees Rogelio’s new pastime as part of a redemptive intervention from no less than ‘Our Lady’ the Virgin Mary. Together, over two decades, these two unlikely friends will engage in strange, ritualised play that also charts the gradual emergence of a nation from soil fertilised by so much death.

Murugarren has adapted her film from Ramiro Pinilla’s novel The Fig Tree (La Higuera, 2006). While Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Julio Medem’s Vacas (1992), Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Juan Carlos Medina’s Painless (2012) might seem obvious reference points for its fable-like take on the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, The Bastards’ Fig Tree also recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Charisma (1999) for the central rôle that it gives to a tree. Here the fig is significant as much for the transformative effect that it has on Rogelio – who becomes a mad hermit and a cult figure – as for the dark history which it conceals (and which nourishes it). Rogelio’s protection of the plant is an act of devotion, an atonement for past sin and a commitment to a fruitful future. 

“One day”, Cipriana tells Rogelio, “all this madness will be over and they’ll make you all pay the price.” Yet as The Bastards’ Fig Tree shifts from the permanent rain of the Civil War to a sunnier post-war period, Rogelio goes from homicidal fascist henchman to humble saint, even if his (and others’) buried history remains to be unearthed and faced by a later generation. The film too shifts from harrowing realism to funny, schlubby parable, as it plants the seeds of humour in the gravest of ground, and shows a sequence of events, as much karmic as causal, that allows a more enlightened society to be founded even on the tomb of a brutally murdered educationalist. 

© Anton Bitel