1970. It has been two years since Equatorial Guinea became a republic ending almost half a century of the latest and final wave of European colonization.
Kilian (Mario Casas) and Bisila (Berta Vázquez) had just made love and he is preparing to leave. He presses a half-torn photo into her hand and tells her, “Always remember me as I am now. I shall do the same with you.” They say goodbye tearfully and, suitcase in hand, he walks into the rainy night.
In the present, Kilian’s brother, Jacobo, has died and is being laid to rest in snowy Huesca in northeastern Spain. Kilian, now an old man, is suffering from dementia. Jacobo’s daughter, Clarence (Adriana Ugarte), and Kilian’s daughter, Daniela, discuss selling the family land and discover Kilian’s journal from his days in Bioko along with a half-torn photo and a note stating that money had been sent to an unidentified woman. Clarence travels to Bioko to find out about his father’s life there and to discover if they had living relatives in the island.
In the 1950s, present-day Bioko off the west coast of Africa was called Fernando Poo by the Europeans. Once a Portuguese colony and British trading port, Fernando Poo was ceded to the Spanish which established cocoa plantations. These plantations were worked by migrant laborers from Liberia whom planters often did not pay resulting in de facto slave labor.
This was the situation when Kilian and Jacobo arrive at their father’s plantation in Fernando Poo in 1954. Under the influence of the pleasure-seeking Jacobo, Kilian spends his first few months in the island drinking and sleeping with prostitutes.
One day, his father’s friend, Ose, a native who is part of the Bubi people, invites them to the wedding of his daughter, Bisila. The attraction between Kilian and the bride is palpable. Amid political turmoil and the inevitable social inequality borne out of every colonial rule, they fall in love.
Palm Trees in the Snow goes back and forth in time to tell two stories. The romance of Kilian and Bisila is told in a flashback. Interspersed and integral to their story is life in colonial Africa where Europeans have taken control of the land and established themselves as masters leaving the natives to live on the fringes and regarded as social inferiors.
But the one thing that Palm Trees in the Snow does not attempt to do is be judgmental of history. It simply tells of a time when Spain, already a waning colonial power, took what it could from a land it took from its own people. As all colonizers have done before them and as all neo-colonizers still do to this day.
Palm Trees in the Snow, as told through the romance of Kilian and Bisila, is not a tale of morality. Neither does it pretend to be a political commentary. It is simply a story of two people who were drawn together by a tie that defied skin color and racial origin while, around them, everyone just tried to survive the way they knew how — from the Spaniards who were born to believe that they were entitled to own whatever land they set foot on to the natives who wanted to reclaim what they felt was rightfully theirs.
The second story is Clarence’s journey to understand her father’s past and to unite a family that was once brought together and torn apart by colonialism.
Both stories are told against a backdrop of lush sceneries and dramatic music — the latter, at time boisterous, sometimes stirring but, more often, melancholy. Whether you’re seeing the harshness of winter in Huesca, the raging violence of a storm in Africa or the silent majesty of the ocean, the imagery and music stir your emotion.
Ironically, it is this unparalleled achievement in visual imagery and aural experience that led to many criticisms about the film. As visually stunning and musically stirring as Palm Trees in the Snow is, there are those who claim that the screenplay was weak and the performances, especially of Mario Casas, even weaker.
Palm Trees in the Snow is based on a novel of the same title. I know of very few film adaptations that surpass the original material. It is difficult to judge the merits of a screenplay when you’re only reading its translation. How much of the context and poetry has been lost in the process, I can only sadly guess.
I’ve seen Mario Casas in a handful of films before, most notably The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo) and The Bar (El Bar), both of which came out after Palm Trees in the Snow. While I have to admit that his larger-than-life appearance on screen is what catches the viewer’s attention first (what a gorgeous man he is!), his portrayal of the sometimes naive and often dreamy-eyed Kilian is a perfect foil for the arrogant and devil-may-care Jacobo.
On Netflix, Palm Trees in the Snow is rated 16+ for violence and nudity. While I admit that there’s far more nudity that is called for, none of the sex scenes are in bad taste. If anything, they are there to show that like any normal man and woman their age, the young Kilian and Bisila were two lusty adults who engaged in what most people who are in love do in private.
I love epic stories and period films, and I have seen so many set at various epochs in history in different parts of the world and penned in an array of languages. Palm Trees in the Snow is one of my favorites.