Tierra 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 Angel (Carmelo Gomez), has been hired by the town mayor to fumigate the region. Angel’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 an allusion to legendary compatriot Luis Bunuel, but the underlying story is uniquely Julio Medem’s. In Bunuel’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, and it is her ambivalence 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, Angel is torn between the sweet, melancholic Angela (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, Angel’s object of desire is two separate women, and it is the protagonist who suffers from a split personality. As Angel is gradually seduced by the charming, playful Mari, his omnipresent angel is increasingly drawn to Angela’s soulfulness and warmth. With such a polarized conflict within his own mind, Angel’s decision takes on a greater significance than the simple selection of a lover and becomes a metaphoric struggle for possession of the soul.
Medem’s seamless ability to operate on multiple levels of meaning and intertwine internal and external events elevates Tierra from the stigma of serving as an homage film. Structurally, Medem does not convey the story through circular or elliptical narrative 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. Angela and her daughter bear the same name which, in turn, parallels Angel’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 high electrical activity in the region reflects Angel’s overactive imagination and Mari’s sexual appetite. The dilemma in choosing between Angela and Mari is a manifestation of the internal struggle within Angel for possession of his soul, and reflects his own split personality. Inevitably, a choice between the two women will irrevocably destroy a part of himself. Tierra is a haunting, visually mesmerizing journey into the strange world of human behavior – attraction and connection, love and jealousy, the spiritual and the corporal – and subterranean woodlice.
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