For years, Martin and Margo’s life together seemed a thing enchanted. The pair met at a protest against gentrification in their native Holland. Enflamed by their shared passion, they fell in love, married, and dreamed of a life less ordinary. They left behind the world they knew of big cities and office jobs, selling their property and using the money to road trip across Europe. They were jolly nomads, seeking experiences but ultimately a place to call their home. Two years into this journey, they discovered a small Spanish village on the brink of abandonment. Here would be where they would put down roots. And here, began a path to a horrible mystery.
At the end of long winding roads, deep in the mountains lies the village of Santoalla, which lies in ruins. All but one family of farmers had left this land behind, but to Martin and Margo it was a gorgeous location perfect for fixing up into something extraordinary. Archival footage shows Martin—the extrovert, warm and garrulous—speaking Spanish to TV news crews curious about his and Margo’s revitalization project. Having built a farm brimming with gardens, bunnies, and goats, they dreamed of building a blissful camping destination, where wanderers like themselves could revel in the glories of this rapturous landscape. But the last remaining natives of Santoalla—and Margo and Martin’s only neighbors—bristled at the couple’s proposed changes, and made themselves a nuisance at every opportunity. Then Martin went missing.
The documentary Santoalla centers on Margo Verfondern, who for years has lived alone in the house she and her lost husband rebuilt, next door to the family she believes killed him. This sounds like the premise of a Michael Haneke film, grim and soul-crushing. But directors Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer carve something startlingly humane out of this true-life tragedy. They reveal the Verfonderns in archival TV footage, glitchy home videos, and frank interviews with Margo. Through her openness, it’s easy to understand how the lovers saw this village as a place begging for rebirth, a land crying for their care and creativity. But things turn complicated once Jovita Rodríguez, the matriarch of the neighboring family, weighs in.
Interviewed in the town’s humble chapel, Jovita speaks with a glint in her eye like she relishes the rare chance to gossip. Under the gaze of a saint statue, she suggests that Martin was crazy, cheating on Margo, and clearly a no-good rogue who’d run off on his wife. But the more fascinating story she spins is of her own family, who has lived in this village for generations. The Rodríguezes know nowhere but Santoalla. They knew the families whose homes are now heaps of rubble and ruins. So when Martin began scavenging those spots for stones for his renovation projects, Jovita’s husband Manolo rebuffed him. Where their grown sons were once on friendly terms with the Dutch newcomers, growing tensions led to lawsuits, and increased paranoia on Martin’s part. He began filming his neighbors as they sprayed pesticides and trespassed on his lawn. An eruption between the warring neighbors seemed inevitable. Then—without warning—Martin was gone.
Now I realize it sounds like I’m telling you the whole of Santoalla. But this film is less about the story, and more about the people. This is not an investigation piece like The Keepers that is doggedly seeking justice for the victims. There are no detectives interviewed, no theories put forth except the most obvious. And yet, there’s no salacious finger-pointing. Instead, the filmmakers allow Jovita’s flare for passive-aggressive comments (“Do good, no matter to whom”) and Margo’s gift for pathos-rich poetry (“The dream of Martin and me is still alive”) to paint a brittle but riveting conflict. Their fates are tied together in a cruel embrace.
Santoalla starts slow, lulling you into one woman’s story, then the other’s. And as Becker and Mehrer put together the pieces, you’ll feel your breath grow tight in your chest. You fear the mystery will be solved as much as you wish it will be. Because there’s no way this shakes out that isn’t heartbreaking. And when the truth is discovered, the documentary delivers it bluntly in title cards, a choice that felt like such a stark slap in the face that I cried out at the screen. That’s not a criticism, more a comment to the effectiveness of the filmmaker’s frank sensibility.
There’s beauty to be found in Santoalla, in thoughtfully framed shots of burning lawn furniture, and winding dirt roads. There’s darkness and bitterness, creeping up beneath the town’s idyllic façade. And underneath it all runs a coursing river of heartache and humanity, tragedy and resilience. Because for all the things these women have between then, it’s their drive to carry on in the face of unspeakable horror that makes them jarring reflections of each other.
All in all, Santoalla is a true crime documentary unlike any you’ve seen before. It’s nuanced, bittersweet, and haunting, daring you not only to delve into its mystery, but also to confront its complicated message about community and humanity.
Santoalla is now playing in select theaters.