The last time we met director Alex de la Iglesia at Fantastic Fest, he was telling us that in order to enjoy life, you have to be a bad person. He said as much prior to introducing his eccentric, wonderfully crafted film The Last Circus in 2010. It was full of astounding performances, striking visuals and an unnerving political relevance. Since then, he’s been working on a film called Witching and Bitching, which debuted at this year’s festival to equal measures of madness. It’s nice to know that he’s still crazy and still making wonderfully entertaining films.
The story revolves around a group of desperate men who dress up in costumes — Jesus, a Green Toy Soldier, Spongebob Squarepants, etc. — and use the business of a town square as cover while they steal a bag filled with thousands of gold rings from a pawn shop. The robbery sequence, which opens the film, is a forceful reminder of everything that de la Iglesia does well as a filmmaker. The deep colors stand out against a bleak background. Jesus, painted all in silver, makes himself a memorable entrance, not only because a shotgun-wielding Christ is interesting on its own, but because we soon discover that he’s recruited his young son to help with the heist. But more on that later. As the film opens with chaos, the camera work is extraordinary. Scenes are fast, but elegant and superbly crisp. The action moves frantically, but we never lose sight of the fun brought about by Spongebob with a submachine gun. Here, de la Iglesia sets the world within his movie right with his sick sense of humor. And we’re off to the races.
As the men escape the city and head for the border of Spain and France, we begin to learn a bit more about them. Along with their hostage/taxi driver, they begin to unravel their stories. Jesus (Hugo Silva) is a deadbeat dad trying to spend time with his young boy. The heist was his desperate attempt to provide for his son and perhaps get out from under the boot-heel of the boy’s mother and her alimony claim. The Soldier (Mario Casas) is broke, only sort of employed and in a relationship with a powerful lawyer who intimidates him greatly. Finding common cause thanks to bad luck with the mother of his own children, their driver (somewhat hilariously) goes from hostage to a member of the crew as they speed off toward the border, unaware that they are about to come upon a town full of far more evil women.
They land unfortunately in a town called Zugarramurdi, a real town famous for its ties to the 17th Century Basque Witch Trials. It’s here we meet a family of wicked ladies (Carolina Bang, Carmen Maura and Terele Pàvez, all fantastically devious as they throw themselves fully into their over-the-top evil roles) who want to use them for a ritual that will unleash the Great Mother upon the Earth and put women back in charge. And these guys thought they had women troubles before…
Opening like a shot, the film takes a bit of time to put the pieces into place before it spirals into witch-raving anarchy. This is where de la Iglesia’s latest may run into problems, but the banter between the characters is entertaining enough to carry us through. He also does a lot of navel-gazing with his own shots. Sure, there’s some pretty visuals in this one, but at times the camera lingers, for better or worse.
Once it all gets into gear though and the witches’ plans for our three heisting heroes are revealed, all hell (most literally) breaks loose onto the Spanish countryside. Complicit in the crazy is Carolina Bang, a standout from The Last Circus as well. As the youngest, most emotional (and tightly-clad) member of the witch family, she gets to take the witching to new heights as she strikes up a torrid relationship with our deadbeat Jesus. She flies through the air, climbs walls, and lets out all kinds of delightful crazy in one of the most entertaining performances we’re going to see this year… at least where witches are concerned. It all adds up to what is essentially a battle royale of gender politics, which is heavy-handed but intriguing theme. In certain moments (especially right as a sea of raving witches in a cave kicks off the film’s climax), de la Iglesia dissects the nature of men and women and our ability to marginalize and persecute one another. It also says quite a lot about why you should never contradict a witch.
The film’s grand finale gets a little heavy on the digital effects, but it’s so gleefully insane and energetic that its faults are easy to overlook. In de la Iglesia, we’re seeing the mind of a clinically insane man spewed forth on screen with the touch of a master craftsman. Even in a lesser piece of work — mostly due to the lack of character depth and the political punch of The Last Circus — he’s working on such a joyously insane level that it’s hard not to be entertained. Full of weird and wonderful insanity, Witching and Bitching is the kind of wild ride you don’t look away from. The insanity is magnetic.
The Upside: Alex de la Iglesia puts his eccentricities on display and brings to life a fun, frightening vision of modern day witches.
The Downside: The film has it’s moments that are longer than is seemingly necessary and does a good bit of digital effects overload in the end.
On the Side: The film’s big finale is set in the Cave of Zugarramurdi, the iconic real life stomping ground of witches along Spain’s famous Witchcraft Route — a place that, after seeing this movie, I will never be visiting.