Hierro (2009)

Hierro first published by Film4

Summary: In Gabe Ibáñez’s thrilling feature debut, a desperate mother (or two) findx the real, the psychological and the supernatural all washing up at the edge of the world.

Review: Lying in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa and used for many centuries to mark the prime meridian on maps, El Hierro is the southwesternmost of Spain’s Canary Islands, and the southernmost tip of Europe. It is to this liminal space that single mother María (Elena Anaya) is travelling by night ferry with her five-year-old son Diego (Kaiet Rodríguez) when she drifts off to sleep – and wakes up to a living nightmare. Diego has vanished without trace.

Six months later, still traumatised by loss, now phobic about water, and existing in a medicated haze between dreams and wakefulness, María is called back to El Hierro to identify the body of a young boy just pulled from the water. Required to wait three days for the arrival of an officiating judge after she insists that the corpse is not Diego’s, the haunted María comes to realise that there is more than one desperate mother and more than one missing son on this island of lost souls – and so, surrounded by water, in extreme isolation at the end of the world, she is about to unravel a psychological (or is it supernatural?) mystery in the steep rocky coastlines and barren interiors of her surroundings. 

As the loss of a child pushes a mother to the edge – and beyond – the biggest problem facing director Gabe Ibáñez, director of Hierro, is that we have been here many times before. In the last decade alone, films like Dark Water (2002; remade 2005), The Forgotten (2004), The Descent (2005), Flightplan (2005), Half Light (2006), Silent Hill (2006), Inside (2007), Vinyan (2008), Antichrist (2009) and Triangle (2009) have all blended maternity, mourning and madness to delirious effect – and even The Orphanage (2007), made by Ibáñez’s fellow Spaniard J.A. Bayona, was treading waters not just similarly uncanny, but uncannily similar. 

Yet if the plot of Hierro seems no more fresh than a long-submerged corpse, and its various narrative twists and turns never quite elicit the surprise that they should, there is considerable compensation in the film’s unusually strong sense of place. Ibáñez’s psychological thriller cum ghost story is rooted in a location that is entirely concrete and real, but still seems to reverberate with the protagonist’s state of mental withdrawal. 

Island and isolated heroine alike are framed with great accomplishment by DP Alejandro Martínez, while Ibáñez’s own past experience as an animator ensures that the film’s aqueous, CG-inflected dream sequences are carried off with the sort of visual flair more usually associated with the arthouse. Meanwhile Anaya’s strong central performance holds everything together, bringing a human presence into the otherwise unforgiving landscape. Hierro is unquestionably a film of consummate craft and eerie beauty. Give Ibáñez a less shopworn screenplay, and one suspects that his next feature will do more than just skilfully coast. 

Verdict: Gabe Ibáñez’s ghostly debut tells a tale of maternity, mourning and madness with a high degree of craft and a strong sense of place

© Anton Bitel