If you’ve ever attended a film festival, you know that there are inevitably too many movies and not enough time to see them all. At last year’s Fantastic Fest, there were so many films I either couldn’t find time for or was too exhausted to drag myself to, so I’ve had to wait for video-on-demand releases in order to catch myself up. One of the films I regretted missing out on was The Bastards’ Fig Tree, which bills itself as in a similar vein to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and tells a fable that deconstructs guilt in the face of ultimate sin. Well, having now seen the film, I can tell you that the del Toro comparison feels particularly weak, seemingly only grounded in the Spanish Civil War setting, and the thematic depths of this narrative come nowhere close to the symbolism of del Toro’s magical realism. And yet, for as slight as The Bastards’ Fig Tree is, I can’t say I didn’t have a good time watching it.
The story follows a fascist soldier named Rogelio (Karra Elejalde) in the aftermath of having killed a father and his sixteen-year-old son for the father’s resistance to the fascist regime. The father’s ten-year-old son then buries the bodies himself and plants a fig sapling on the grave. When Rogelio goes to investigate the grave, he runs into the boy, and by looking into the boy’s eyes he comes to recognize the gravity of what he has done to this boy’s family. So Rogelio makes it his mission to care for the growing fig tree, becoming a hermit in the process and amassing cultish notoriety in the years to come.
Now, the metaphor is obvious insofar as it pertains to Rogelio, with his devotion to paying tribute to the people he harmed during his time as a fascist manifesting in the tree’s growth and bearing literal fruit. What’s perhaps less obvious is how the film wants to poke at the frailty of institutional memory, as time marches on and only Rogelio is committed to remembering the crimes of the fascist government. It’s a theme highlighted through cynical and comic portrayals of the parallels between fascist policing and bureaucratic tedium, with Rogelio’s former comrades returning over the years as city councilors bent on reclaiming the land Rogelio has enshrined. It’s a smart observation of how society’s hurry to forget the past does a disservice to those who were buried in the pursuit of progress.
It’s unfortunate, then, that The Bastards’ Fig Tree doesn’t quite live up to its potential either as a dark comedy or as a social commentary. It functions just fine as both, but it’s also surprisingly unambitious for how rich its conceptual foundation is. Characters are sketched so broadly as to be largely indistinguishable from one another, with only Rogelio and his greed-obsessed neighbor Ermo (Carlos Areces) standing out as distinct personalities. The tone never quite settles into consistently comic or contemptuous, vacillating between the two in a tedious first act that takes too long to set up the central premise. Even then, though the experience retains a baseline enjoyability, it only jerks awake with farce in fits and starts. The moments when the film commits to comedy are genuinely astute and biting, but it barely feels stitched together by the underlying tapestry of the social commentary.
I probably don’t regret missing The Bastards’ Fig Tree as part of my festival experience, as I would probably be much more disappointed with the film in such close approximation to Fantastic Fest’s other, more superior offerings. But as a Sunday afternoon matinee experienced from the comfort of my couch, I don’t feel like my time was wasted. Sure, the film is slight and a bit unfocused, but it also occasionally lands in ways that are insightful or hilarious, and in particularly lucky moments, it does both.