Tierra (Earth, Julio Medem, 1996) opens with a hypnotic journey through space, as the camera soars through the ethereal atmosphere, descending towards an agricultural area, then focusing in on a lone traveler who is having a motivational conversation with himself. A remote village has been infested with woodlice, imparting an earthy taste to the locally produced wine. An exterminator, a self-described “complex” man named Ángel (Carmelo Gómez), has been hired by the town mayor to fumigate the region. Ángel’s inner voice, the figurative angel of his subconscious who has died but continues to exist (and interject opinions) within his corporal self, believes that he has been sent down to earth for a divine mission.
The surreal plot of Tierra may be a respectful allusion to legendary compatriot Luis Buñuel, but the underlying story is uniquely Julio Medem’s. In Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire , the protagonist, Mathieu (Fernando Rey), is a vain, hypocritical older man relentlessly attempting to win the undivided affection of a beautiful, elusive young woman named Conchita. It is Conchita’s emotional ambivalence towards the tenaciously persistent suitor that is reflected through the physical vacillation between the two actresses playing the role of Conchita, Carole Bouquet (cold and demure) and Angela Molina (sensual and aggressive).
In Tierra, Ángel is torn between the sweet, melancholic Ángela (Emma Suarez), the neglected wife of a local farmer named Patricio (Karra Elejalde), and the sensual, uninhibited Mari (Silke), Patricio’s mistress. Unlike Mathieu’s obsession, Conchita, whose shifting persona is portrayed by two different actresses, Ángel’s object of desire is two separate women, and it is the protagonist who suffers from a split personality. From the onset, it is evident that both Ángela and Mari are attracted to the rugged, mild mannered Ángel, and the onus is on Ángel to choose between them. As Ángel is gradually seduced by the charming, playful Mari, his omnipresent angel is increasingly drawn to Ángela’s soulfulness and warmth. With such a polarized conflict within his own mind, Ángel’s decision takes on a greater significance than the simple selection of a lover and becomes a metaphoric struggle for possession of the soul.
By introducing the idea of the soul’s struggle between the mind and body, Tierra begins to diverge from obvious comparisons with Luis Buñuel and thematically converges with the early films of Federico Fellini. The opening sequence of Tierra conveys the narrative of angel sent down to earth, and echoes the familiar imagery of Fellini. (In La Dolce Vita , a religious statue is transported by helicopter above the rooftops, and in 8 œ , a suffocating man trapped inside his car begins to levitate above the traffic.) In Fellini’s La Strada , the simple minded Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) embodies the soul who is torn between the brutish circus strongman, Zampano (Anthony Quinn), and the clever, taunting Fool (Richard Basehart). However, while La Strada depicts the internal conflict through three distinctly separate characters, Tierra generates conflict internally within Ángel.
But is Ángel’s conflict with his conscience the manifestation of a psychological fracture? His treatment at a psychiatric institution for an overactive imagination seems to confirm his mental instability. However, Ángel accurately describes the physical experience of surviving a lightning strike to the shepherd, Ulloa (Pepe Viyuela), who has been struck by lightning and temporarily revived. Has Ángel experienced a similar death and come back to life, as angel has explained? Similarly, when Ángela’s recently widowed father, Tomás (Txema Blasco), begins to envision his late wife as a means to help assuage his grief, Ángel acknowledges her presence. Is Ángel humoring the grief-sticken Tomás, or can the angel within him actually see her? After completing the fumigation for the region, the mayor congratulates Ángel on a job well done and comments that his work will reflect favorably on his institutional records. Was he only given a temporary release in order to work on the fumigation project, and has not been discharged as being cured from his mental illness?
Medem’s seamless ability to operate on multiple levels of meaning and intertwine internal and external events elevates Tierra from the stigma of merely serving as a Buñuel homage film. Structurally, Medem does not convey the story through circular references as his subsequent film Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) does, but rather, through fractals, mathematical expressions whose representative cross-section is a reflection of their overall geometric pattern. The film, in essence, literally unfolds onto itself, revealing deeper layers of the same phenomenon. Ángela and her daughter bear the same name which, in turn, parallels Ángel’s symbiotic bond with his own uncontrollable angel. The infestation of woodlice just beneath the surface of the soil is repeated in the rampancy of wild boars above the ground, and the same workers participate in both attempts at extermination. The blue flecks in the eyes of a lamb struck by lightning can also be seen in Ángel’s eyes. The high electrical activity in the region reflects Ángel’s overactive imagination and Mari’s sexual appetite. Lastly, the dilemma in choosing between Ángela and Mari is a manifestation of the internal struggle within Ángel for possession of his soul. However, if the thematic structure of Tierra does, indeed, follow the behavior of geometric fractals, then what does Ángel’s struggle for the soul represent? .A struggle for the mind of a hopeless madman with a tenuous hold on reality? Have we been recounted the tale of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) but denied its revelatory conclusion?
The surreal atmosphere of Tierra further obscures the delineation between reality and fantasy. The striking landscape imagery of intensely red earth and barren plants grows even stranger with the appearance of exterminators wearing self-contained protective rubber suits and clouds of obscuring fog emanating from their spray hoses. Ángel’s spherical chemical tank, borescope and high-powered binoculars resemble the equipment of a frontier explorer rather a woodlice exterminator. Curiously, Ángel never mentions the name of the town (or planet, for that matter) of his assignment, and we only assume that he has traveled to a remote, provincial Spanish town. Given the vast expanse of the universe, angel explains that Ángel is in a place of hope. Perhaps he is in another world, and the exotic strangeness of the region and its inhabitants is normal.
Ángel’s relationship with Ángela and Mari proves to be as equally nebulous as the strange land to which he has been sent. Ángela, the nurturing, devoted wife and mother, defies convention by welcoming Ángel’s blatantly focused attention towards her and encouraging his company by inviting him to dinner and entertaining his telephone calls. In contrast, after years of promiscuity, Mari sees their mutual “overactivity”, Angel’s imagination and her sexuality, as a sign that they are destined to fall in love. It is uncoincidental that Mari’s sexual advance towards Ángel at a local bar occurs from the safe distance of an adjoining billiard room, and their moment of intimacy is non-sexual. In essence, by abstaining from a physical relationship with Ángel, she proves her love for him.
Tierra is a fascinating metaphysical excursion into the enigmatic and wondrous terrain of human emotion: attraction and connection, love and jealousy, the spiritual and the corporal. Guided through the journey by a pensive, fragmented exterminator, Medem fuses psychological instability with emotional conflict, and deftly creates the incomprehensively complex puzzle of human relationships. In a strange world of electrical storms and subterranian woodlice, Medem literally scratches the surface and reveals the fundamental truth to the irrational behavior of the human soul.