A tale of self-destruction in northern Spain, based on a classic Galician novel.

Marshland and El nino are two examples of Spanish film’s recent focus on the regional, in these cases on Andalucia in the south. Ignacio Vilar’s mighty, moody A esmorga does the same for Galicia in the north. A too-rare example of a film in the local language, this striking, bleakly surreal tale of three embittered men undertaking a sorry voyage of self-destruction is based on Eduardo Blanco Amor’s same-title novel, a Galician classic, which was censored on original publication under Franco and much of whose power, like that of the film, derives from what it leaves unsaid.

The title, almost impossible to translate accurately, roughly means “on a drinking spree”. So far only it’s been released in Galicia itself, where it’s had a success unlikely to be repeated when it goes on Spain-wide release in March 2015. But festivals with an eye for movies whose very authenticity and specificity lend them a more general significance should raise a glass with A esmorga.

By all accounts rural Galicia in the 50s under Franco was miserable, and director Ignacio Vilar, who clearly feels a strong sense of duty towards the source text, captures almost to the point of physicality the air of damp, impoverished oppression under which many lives were played out. Cibran (Miguel de Lira) is a labourer with young child born out of marriage to Raxada (Melania Cruz). On his way to work one morning, he’s waylaid by two drunken friends, Bocas (Karra Elejalde, his profile high after this year’s Spanish blockbuster Spanish Affair) and troubled Milhomes (Antonio Duran, ‘Morris’). Reluctantly Cebran agrees to join them as they wander directionless around the area, leaving a trail of destruction, and of self-destruction, in their wake.

They visit a bar run by the mighty Esquilache (Covadonga Berdinas), who nurses Cebran’s feet between her breasts in an attempt to soothe his painful carbuncles; they enter the grounds of a local dignitary who has recently returned from France, where Bocas falls in love with a mysterious woman in a window; they visit a country house where the drunken Cebran accidentally starts a fire; they visit a brothel and are chased out; they flirt with a mad, childless woman, Socorrito (Sabela Aran), who each morning takes a doll out for a walk in a pram. All the time the local police are on their heels — there’s the suspicion that Milhomes has killed a man in a barroom brawl in a neighboring village.

An increasingly somber air hangs over their mindless, surreal wanderings: nothing good can come of any of this, especially since Milhomes unexpressed sexuality means he is continually bothering Bocas in ways which neither of the men quite understand. It becomes clear that Bocas and Milhomes are on a kind of drunken suicide mission which the weak-willed Cebran has thoughtlessly joined: drink is Cebran’s way of escaping from what he calls “thought”, an awful, lucid state of mind where he becomes aware of the crushing horror of his existence.

It all adds up to a pretty grim portrait of life in a region of Spain which has strangely been both abandoned and oppressed by authorities which are never visible but whose impact on local lives is definitive. In other words, A esmorga is a political film about Spain’s ongoing financial crisis.

Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos’s photography does a fine job of rendering the rich tones and textures of Galicia, which seems to be composed of darkness, rain, moss and stone in varying quantities. The atmospherics are strong, but it’s the performances, from actors who, Elejalde apart, are all Galician, that make the film. Superficially, these characters either are, or have been turned into, little more than animals, and are slaves to their instincts, but the performances continually remind us of their hinterlands of pain as they struggle to be human in ways they’re not being permitted to.

Dramatically, A esmorga is about twenty minutes too long: there are stretches where the trio’s drunken ramblings are overindulged, as though Vilar has been hypnotized by the excellent performances. (Incidentally, it represents a quantum leap in quality over Vilas’s previous work.) Zeltia Montes’s simple, effective minor-key piano score is employed with a discretion which is often in telling, melancholy contrast to the excesses of our three downward-spiraling heroes.