My notes on the Basque tall tale Errementari (The Blacksmith and the Devil).This folkloric horror film – which isn’t just in the Basque language, but in Old Basque — has some of the earthy, peculiar, vaguely nationalist feel found in such fringes-of-the-continent efforts as the Lapp-Finnish The White Reindeer, the Soviet Viy, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War fairy/ghost tales or Sergei Paradjanov’s pantomime epic Georgian films … though the input of heavily-credited producer Alex de la Iglesia entails enough demonic and gory effects to play to genre fans throughout the world who can pick up on the shared language of historical horror films and deal with the Devil sagas.
It opens in 1835, during ‘the First Carlist War’, with the execution of Basque Carlists by bayonetting soldiers of the Spanish Isabelline faction – it’s almost a point of the film that most viewers outside Spain will have to resort to Wikipedia to find out what the hell this was all about, though I suspect that when this plays in the Basque region audiences will respond passionately to a historical injustice that informs contemporary political debate. Among the condemned men is Paxti (Kandido Uranga), a blacksmith who turns out to be hard to kill – probably because of his association with a briefly-glimpsed demon Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy). Some years later, the region is in a period of uneasy peace, and Paxti has barricaded himself behind spiked walls in his booby-trapped smithy when a bald-headed official from Madrid arrives to investigate the disappearance of a fortune in Carlist gold which he hints Paxti has something to do with.
Though the locals shun the hulking, bearlike blacksmith – who is seen as an iron-masked thug out of a slasher movie for a while – the mention of big money ensures that the official soon has a posse to help invade the smith’s lair. Meanwhile, Usue (Uma Bracaglia), a semi-orphaned child outcast, gets into Paxti’s compound in search of the torn-off head of a doll thrown over the walls by bullying boys … and finds a grubby child imprisoned in a cage, who begs her – as plausibly as several fairytale fiends, and indeed Baron Meinster in Brides of Dracula – for help in escaping unjust confinement by a monster. She lifts the smith’s keys and unlooses the child, who transforms into Sartael – who has struck a typical demon’s bargain with a now-unsatisfied customer – and sets about collecting the soul he’s owed.
There is a lot of plot – and a great many characters, including the household of a priest who keeps kindly informing Usue that her dead-by-suicide mother is in Hell, get involved. It’s riotously cynical about causes and beliefs, with politics and religion entwined to give the innocent a hard time and the hypocritical an easy ride – even Sartael turns out to be a minor imp bossed around by bigger, more repulsive devils. I’ve no way of knowing how much of the lore on offer is genuine old Basque folk belief and how much made up by writer-director Paul Urkijo Alijo – but a lot of it is convincingly daffy, and worked skilfully into the stories. Like some vampires, these demons have an obsessive-compulsive need to count – and Paxti torments his prisoner by emptying a pot of chickpeas in front of him and stirring them up just as he’s almost counted them. Also, the tinkling of a blessed bell causes demons pain – as does being branded with a cross.
The farcical ins and outs of the small, cruel community of Álava tend to lead everyone to Hell – with Paxti holding onto his too-easily-spent soul when he feels cheated in th bargain (all he asked for was to get home to see his wife again, forgetting to specify that she had to be a) faithful and b) alive when he saw her) and Usue logically reasoning that if her mother is in Hell (yes, the backstories entwine) then she wants to go there too. The impressive finale of the film takes place just outside the gates of Hell, which are dramatically depicted with fire and darkness and demon owing something to both Hieronymus Bosch and Screaming Mad George shepherding hordes of naked, damned souls in the manner of the various cinema depictions of Dante’s Inferno and the likes of the Japanese Jigoku and the Turkish Baskin. Most versions of the Faust story take a sophisticated, legalist, moral approach to damnation – but this has a peasant directness and a sense of what’s fair rather than what’s the law. Most of the supporting characters are caricatures, but Paxti, Usue and Sartael are more nuanced and interesting – and their brushes with hellfire (literal, in all cases) shape them into even more nuanced and interesting folk, with a wonderful tall tale image of the brawny pissed-off blacksmith lugging a huge church-bell into hell just to torment the Devil.