The most striking thing about The Legend of Romasanta is the non sensational stance taken by director Francisco ‘Paco’ Plaza whose previous experience with horror was in 2002 as Ramsay Campbell adaptation Second Name. The Legend of Romasanta claims to be based on the true story of a 19th century Spanish salesman, Manuel Blanco Romasanta who seduced many women and killed them in a gruesome manner. He was eventually caught and tried in the Allariz in 1852 where he justified his killings by saying that he was a werewolf and it was his nature to hunt.
The plot of the movie is simple enough. Set in Galicia region of Spain in early 1850’s the movie narrates the harrowing tale of a district plagued by a series of brutal killings apparently by a wolf. A British Professor is entrusted with the task of tracking whoever is responsible for the murders by the judiciary. The focus then shifts towards a family, who like others, live in perpetual fear of wolf. Elder sister Maria leaves with travelling salesman Manual Romasanta to marry him along with her daughter Teresa. Once they reach forest, Romasanta kills both Teresa and Maria and returns to seduce Barbara, the younger sister. After she takes the bullet of a sniper to save his life, he sleeps with her. She grows suspicious of him when he made a present of an expensive piece of jewellery to her and goes searching in his caravan only to discover the proof that her sister and niece are dead along with many others. Romasanta tries to kill her but the mysterious huntsman Antonio, who had earlier tried to shoot Romasanta, saves her and explains that both he and Romasanta are werewolves and have killed many in collusion. But he had a change of heart and now wants to kill Romasanta. After Antonio gives himself up to authorities, Barbara helps police in tracking down and arresting Romasanta. In the court room, his only defence is that he is a werewolf.
Being intrigued with the unusual story, and claims of moviemakers that it was a true story, I tried to find out more about Manuel Blanco Romasanta from the internet. Unfortunately, all searches led to the reviews of the film as far as English language reference material is concerned. In Spanish language Wikipedia, there seems to be an entry for Romasanta but my lack of knowledge of the Spanish language prevented me from finding out more. Despite a few incidents of anachronism like professor lecturing on genetics along with phrenology in 1851 whereas nobody had ever heard the word until 1905 and the idea of DNA did not even exist till 1950’s, the apparent sense of historical credibility of the movie remains intact.
As compared to many other movies dealing with the subject of werewolves, Romasanta is a far superior attempt, all due to director Paco Plaza’s exquisitely rich sense of mise-en-scene. Brilliant cinematography of richly textured minutiae of rural Spain of 19th century and vivid details like burning caravan running through a dark forest with Barbara inside, Romasanta heating fat in forest immediately after the grim scene of corpses found with no body fat, conjures a tale that is eminently poignant. Another plus point is that nothing is spelt out to the audience and they are mostly left on their own to figure out various disparate elements. It takes some time before random scenes like Barbara’s farewell to her sister, district attorney’s investigation, Antonio’s attempts to kill Romasanta and Barbara’s seduction start making sense.
The choice of actors is another aspect of movie that makes it hugely watchable. With his experience in horror films, Julian Sands has acquired a way of expressing an overwrought character. In the beginning, he is a charming man both helpful and loving. The audience is shocked at the turn around when he blinds the bird and leaves it to die, dismissing it as “It’s only a bird.” His sexually charged menace is palpable in later scenes. His powerful performance holds audience spell bound, who are as much attracted towards him as they are repulsed by him. The final scene between him and Elsa Pataky is the most potent performance by him and the gorgeous actress.
The only way they could have improved this documentary -fantasy was by playing more on the ambiguity of the central character’s claims. In the absence of any witness of a man turning into a wolf, it’s only logical that audience would reject the historical Romasanta’s claim that he was a werewolf. It would be easier to accept that either he was a sociopath who killed to satisfy his instinct and made money out of his victims by selling their belongings and soap made from their body fat or he suffered from some psychological delusion or compulsion. Had the movie vied more between rational and supernatural, it would have been even better.
But we must concede that Romasanta became even more gripping at a point where an ordinary werewolf film might have ended. The sighting and arrest of Romasanta turns the movie in a fascinating direction. The court room scene where Romasanta absolves himself of any responsibility of all murders by claiming that he was a werewolf, and then the scene where he is hypnotised and regressed by the professor to re-enact the murders succeeded by the claims of the professor that he could cure Romasanta of lycanthropy are quite fascinating.
In a sea of films about werewolves, this one stands out. The powerful images and vivid details keep haunting a long time after the film has ended.