Hierro – English translation: “Iron” – is a 2009 Spanish horror feature film directed and co-written by Gabe Ibáñez.The movie stars Elena Anaya, Bea Segura, Mar Sodupe, Miriam Correa, Andrés Herrera, and Kaiet Rodríguez.
Whilst on a ferry trip to the tiny volcanic island of El Hierro, María (Elena Anaya) loses her son Diego (Kaiet Rodríguez). Police find a body, but María is certain it is not her little boy. Increasingly disturbed, she experiences elaborate hallucinations, develops a fear of water connected to the disappearance, and becomes obsessed with investigating the mystery herself…
Possibly inspired (if only tangentially) by the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007, Hierro is a mother’s nightmare alchemically transmuted into a dream narrative packed with surreal images.
Photographed with flair and creativity by Alejandro Martínez, it’s a tale of subtle, melancholy dread, blessed with a minutely detailed sense of place and a strong central performance from Elena Anaya (Talk to Her; The Skin I Live In). Ibáñez ravishes our attention with a stream of weird and unsettling tableaux which resonate powerfully and harmoniously with the emotional needs of the story. For instance, when María tries to go swimming to overcome her newly minted fear of water, we see her standing by the poolside with bubbles rising from her mouth, as though the whole room is underwater. The effect is bizarre, but it expresses very well the sensation of moving as if submerged, in a situation where nothing happens fast enough and where panic and claustrophobia stifle hope.
It’s refreshing to encounter a genre film without the obvious flag-posts of horror, adult in its subject and tone, which nonetheless quivers with foreboding. The film’s approach to character is untypical too; María, for instance, is in a quietly matter-of-fact lesbian relationship with Laura (Bea Segura), a fellow marine biologist.
That Hierro doesn’t become ‘Lesbian Marine Biologists on the Island of Death’ is a testament to Ibáñez’s calm and sensitive storytelling; María’s sexuality is simply a detail of ordinary life, not some hugely significant burden upon the narrative.
If the film has relatives in the genre they’re at the artier end of 1970s horror; in particular, there are some striking similarities to Robert Allen Schnitzler’s The Premonition (1975), which also focussed on a disturbed mother searching for her child. Perhaps Hierro needs a few narrative complications to flesh out the leisurely pacing, but this is nevertheless a beautiful, haunting film that tells a tragic story with considerable invention.
Gabe Ibáñez began as an animator on two Spanish genre films by Álex de la Iglesia, The Day of the Beast (1995) and Perdita Durango (1997) before moving into TV commercials.
Discussing Hierro with Alfonso Rivera (of the website Cineuropa) he said: “The theme of madness interested me a great deal: it gave me scope for creating visual cinema, based on the possibilities of film language, cinematography and sound. Madness is a very abstract concept, but the devices of film are perfect for exploring it. The sensory power of film, with the music, editing and colours, really helps in exploring such a subject.”
The film was shot mainly on El Hierro in the Canary Islands, with a few scenes filmed on Gran Canaria (the latter an island whose charms were a source of fascination for Jesús Franco: see Macumba Sexual; Mansion of the Living Dead; Oasis of the Zombies).
Stephen Thrower, MOVIES & MANIA