Margo Pool and Martin Verfondern, as seen in Santoalla (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

These days, the popularity of the true crime genre couldn’t be more apparent, with podcasts like Serial and My Favorite Murder and television series such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx. It’s seeped into the culture in a way that goes beyond the guilty pleasure of watching cable TV; true crime has become prestigious. The documentary Santoalla fits in neatly with the small-town, bizarre crime stories that are capturing imaginations. Featuring a quiet village, bad blood between neighbors, and an unsolved disappearance, it has the makings of a classic crime tale.

The term “small town” is actually too grandiose to describe the setting of Santoalla. Located in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain, this rundown countryside village has been basically abandoned, aside from two families. The Rodríguezes have lived there for generations, working the land and refusing to leave after all their neighbors deserted the village for a more modern way of life. Then in 1997, a Dutch couple, Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, decided to settle in Santoalla after traveling Europe for years. Their intention was to live off the land, rely on the resources around them, as well as build a space where people can visit and take advantage of life off the grid.

Though the relationship between the two families starts out pleasant enough, things deteriorate over time. Santoalla contains common land that’s lawfully shared by all residents of the village. The Rodríguezes, however, withhold money garnered from logging that occurs on this land from Martin and Margo, whom they believe aren’t true residents of the village, or put the money toward community restoration. In addition, Martin’s plans to revitalize the land and build a sustainable farm open to tourists are constantly being prevented.

After mounting a press campaign and going to court over the disputed space, Martin and Margo are granted full rights to the common land as citizens of Santoalla—and then two months later, on January 19th, 2010, Martin disappears. He was last seen driving his SUV home from the local market. In 2014, a new discovery in the landscape of Santoalla sparks questions and a possible resolution to Martin’s disappearance.

Margo, who’s continues to live in Santoalla despite being alone and suspicious of her neighbors, tells her and Martin’s story. Through interviews, accompanied by photos and old footage made by Martin and from news reports, the directors shape Margo’s narrative of how she came to live there and what happened afterward. Interspersed are interviews with the Rodríguezes, who reiterate their deep connection to the land: patriarch Manolo and his two grown sons, Julio and Carlos, though mostly it’s Manolo’s wife, Jovita, who is featured. She speaks strangely of Martin and his disappearance, calling him a bit crazy and constantly repeating she has no idea what happened. Manolo, though quite old by 2014, is a looming figure. He’s mostly silent, but in one clip, he’s about to strike Martin with a cane when the latter shows up at his house with a camera to record ways in which the Rodríguezes may be violating Martin and Margo’s rights.

Martin comes across as a kind and resourceful, if stubborn, man, whose struggle for justice is driven by a will to live off the land he loves in peace. Meanwhile, it is Margo who stands out most strongly; her story and personality carry the film. She’s incredibly resilient in the face of Martin’s disappearance, and despite all that’s happened to her in this lonely place, she holds on to more good memories than bad ones, and considers Santoalla her home.

The landscape of Santoalla is also featured heavily, and it’s clear why Martin and Margo decided, after seeing all of Europe, to settle here. The mountainside setting is beautifully serene, and even though the village itself is falling apart, there’s something genuinely enchanting about it.

For an 82-minute film, Santoalla moves slowly at times, as there’s a lot of backstory to cover before understanding the circumstances that occurred in 2014. But it is worth sticking around through the slow opening, for the film does have a fairly conclusive ending, a thing rare in true crime, where so many mysteries remain unsolved. The 2014 discoveries have a lasting impact on the village that is heartbreakingly poetic. As with all good true crime fare, you can’t make this stuff up.

Directed by Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer
Spain/USA. 82 min. Not rated