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The Germáns are coming
A region 2 DVD review of TO DIE IN SAN HILARO by Slarek
 

Wearing a title that sounds like a melding of sub-Sergio Leone spaghetti western and Carry-On style British silliness, To Die in San Hilario is a low-key comedy that starts rather well and drifts along at an engagingly casual pace, then follows a too predictable path that ultimately tips over into sentimentality.

A straightforward set-up informs us that the small town of San Hilario was once renowned for the splendour of its funerals, but in the past ten years trade has tapered off. Out of the blue, a letter arrives informing the townspeople that a man named Germán Cortes, who grew up in the town but left to become a successful painter, is returning with the intention of dying there and being buried in the style he remembers from his youth. For the town this is a big deal, a chance to perhaps revive their dormant speciality.

Once this has been explained, things get a little more intriguing, as we flit between stories and watch with bemusement as a man interrupts his suicide attempt to jot down a suddenly occurred thought, and a priest breaks off from his agitated prayers to smash up a statue of Saint Benedict. And then there's 'Piernas' ('Legs') Germán, a gangster who escapes a shoot-out with a bagful of money and hops into a freight car on a train heading towards...well, you've guessed it. On board the same train is Mr. Cortes, but despite his determination to die at his chosen location, he pegs out en route. Expecting Cortes and having no idea what he looks like, the San Hilario residents thus assumed that the bemused Piernas is the renowned painter they have been expecting. What follows will hold few surprises for the seasoned viewer, as the villagers prepare for the funeral of a man who doesn't realise just why he is the centre of attention. Ordered to stay put by his boss until the heat dies down, he plays up to a role he is learning on the hoof, which all goes well enough until he is expected, as his final artistic act, to paint a mural on the church wall.

The gentle eccentricity of the town and its locals lends these scenes a charm and humour that is undeniably engaging. There are no big jokes, just small, smile-raising moments: the smiling but twitchy enthusiasm of town governor Mariano; the "room with a view" that overlooks the graveyard; the map that locates the town in the middle of a big white space of nothingness; Piernas's childishly crude mural that is mistaken for abstract symbolism and admired for its purity.

But once Piernas realises what is happening and begins to warm to the town and its residents, the film's charm starts to wane. Piernas learns some life lessons, falls for the girl, engages with her kid, and finds he can express himself through art. It's all very familiar stuff – gangsters who suddenly discover their sensitive side are like whores with a heart of gold, cinematic clichés that require a very deft hand and an original slant to deliver any narrative surprises, and Legs Germán, well enough played though he is by Lluís Homar, just doesn't have it.

As the aspects that provide the initial hook unravel and engaging eccentricity is revealed to be a symptom of an inner pain that Piernas's newly discovered good nature can help cure, my smiles gave way to the sound of air being sucked through closed teeth. Pretty much every twist in the tale can be seen coming because you've seen it all before, to the degree that you should be able to easily predict how all this will end even before you reach the halfway mark.

Ultimately To Die in San Hilario lacks ambition and bite and retreads well worn and somewhat flimsy turf without creating substantial new footprints of its own. Despite the disappointment of their last two films, I couldn't help but wonder what Joel and Ethan Coen might have done with the same basic premise.

sound and vision

No complaints with the transfer – 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the picture displays good contrast and colour and a pleasing level of detail, without obvious edge enhancement.

Dolby 5.1 and DTS surround options are offered, the DTS being slightly louder and richer than it's Dolby brother. Surround effects are subtly used, but make themselves known when appropriate.

extra features

The Trailer (2:03) is non-anamorphic but otherwise in fine shape.

There are a series of increasingly brief Interviews (11:18) with director Laura Mañá and actors Lluís Homar, who plays Piernas, Ana Fernández (Esther), Juan Echanove (Father Antonio), Ferran Rañé (Teodoro), and Ulises Dumont (town governor Mariano).

B Roll (6:47) is a short compilation of behind-the-scenes footage. It's a little formless but interesting nonetheless, and it usefully demonstrates how differently a scene lit for film looks when captured on DV video.

summary

A pleasingly low key set-up unfortunately leads nowhere new, and in the end proved a little too twee for my taste. There are still a fair few things to enjoy in the first half, often almost throwaway moments, my favourite being Teodoro's explanation of one man's demise. "He was an inventor," Piernas is told, "he used to fly at funerals. And that's how he died, flying." "He crashed?" asks Piernas reasonably. "No," Teodoro explains, "he died flying through the air, due to an explosion."

The DVD from Warner Vision International is short on extra features but looks and sounds good. If gentle, undemanding whimsy is your bag, then you'll have few complaints here.

To Die in San Hilario

Spain 2005
95 mins
director
Laura Mañá
starring
Lluís Homar
Ana Fernández
Ferran Rañé
Ulises Dumont
Juan Echanove

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
languages
Spanish
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
Interviews
Behind-the-scenes footage
distributor
Warner Vision International
release date
27 November 2006
review posted
26 November 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews