One of Netflix's more revolutionary acts is scooping up foreign language premieres that, in the old days, would flicker in a coastal city arthouse or two for a week and making them available to anyone in this great land of ours who uses their service. The model for success, of course, is Roma poised to win a few Academy Awards later this month. But for every Roma there's a The Tree of Blood (El Árbol de la Sangre), a movie so categorically awful that I actually recommend you watch it, if only so someone could confirm that I didn't hallucinate this thing.
Written and directed by Spanish auteur Julio Medem (Sex & Lucía, The Red Squirrel), The Tree of Blood is a story-within-a-story (with an extra story inside) that intentionally jumps around with "we'll get back to that" footnotes as the two main characters settle in at an old family homestead to "tell one another the truth" as they scribble notes on their MacBooks. Are they authors? I'm not sure. I'm not sure about anything, really; this is an incredibly confusing and frustrating movie. There's also a mandate as the pair narrate to "leave politics out of this," which means if you aren't fluent in the subtle social cues concerning Catalan/Basque tensions there's probably a lot you're missing. (I confess to being part of this group.)
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But that doesn't mean the movie doesn't zoom. Firstly, it is absolutely gorgeous. I'm booking a trip to the Costa Brava in the northeast corner of Spain immediately, as I've rarely seen such beautiful beaches. The primary location, where our two family historians explain to one another how they hooked up, is nestled in the Pyrenees mountain range. Their enormous stone house is elegantly decorated and there is a giant, meaningful tree in the yard. Before opening their laptops, the pair embraces the tree. Later in the tale, but years earlier, a cow falls out of the tree, nearly killing them. Yeah, this is all going to get weird, hang on.
In addition to the natural splendor, there are the people. Úrsula Coberó and Álvero Cervantes are the young couple whose families have been entwined for at least a generation. We flashback to see their parents and their lovers, a rogues gallery of Iberian gods and goddesses that include Patricia López Arniaz, Joaquín Furriel, Lucía Delgado and more. These people just can't stop having sex! In the morning, in the evening, in the lagoon. Everyone is naked (even just sitting at a desk talking on the phone!) and seems to be having a ball. Medem knows what he likes, and returns to the image of entwined feet wriggling outside the bedsheets as the players howl and grunt in ecstasy. What a time!
But why did a cow fall out of the tree? I'm still not sure. Symbolism, I suppose, as there are a lot of cows and bulls running around; we see them in sweeping drone shots. As we jump back and forth we learn that Rebeca (Coberó) is the daughter of a famous rocker and an unknown father. Rebeca's stepfather helped take care of her when she was an infant and her mother was in and out of mental hospitals. He is a "good man," but Rebeca is beginning to suspect that he may have a past. (This past may involve working for the Georgian mob, contract killing and organ harvesting. Also: Rebeca has a scar on her chest. Coincidence?)
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Marc (Cervantes) was raised by his mother, a bisexual free-spirit, and his mother's lover, a novelist. Young Marc and Rebeca first met at a wedding at the mountain home, which belonged to ancestors of Olmo, a handsome dude who is a father figure to Marc, who later ends up sleeping with Rebeca. There's a second wedding there, too, where Marc and Rebeca first kiss. That's also when the cow falls out of the tree. I still don't know what's up with the cow.
I don't want to give away the ending of the movie, but I'll just say it involves coincidences, car crashes (more cows!) and the most overblown act of self-sacrifice I've ever seen. I kind of wish I saw that in a theater just to hear other people laugh. When Rebeca confronts her stepfather she is horrified to learn some painful truths ... for about 11 seconds. Then she forgives him and they hug. Mom is there, too, so the three embrace and end up rolling around on each other laughing. They are on the beach and are wearing tight and revealing bathing suits, so this big emotional moment looks like a softcore threesome. Like so much in The Tree of Blood it's a baffling thing of beauty.
Tree of Blood is streaming now on Netflix.
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Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel.
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