THE 2022 Spanish film As Bestas, known in English as The Beasts, is a taught, almost unbearably tense thriller. It tells the story of a French couple who move to the Galicia region, but soon fall out with their neighbours – a disagreement that has tragic consequences.
The movie was the big winner at this year’s Goya Awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, and has also won approval from critics such as the UK’s Mark Kermode. But what many people might not know is that the events portrayed in the film are actually based on a true story.
In 1997, Martin Verfondern and his wife Margo Pool moved from the Netherlands to the semi-abandoned hamlet of Petin, in Santoalla do Monte, Ourense province, to live their dream of renovating a house and living close to nature.
Initially relations were good with the only other residents of the area, the Rodriguez family of farmers who lived nearby, made up of an elderly couple and their two sons, Juan Carlos and Julio.
But soon disputes began to spring up. They fell out over grazing rights on the hillside that overlooked the village. Verfondern also accused the Rodriguez family of abusing animals and dumping rubbish in the river.
There were also disagreements about a pine forest, and whether the 500 hectares of wood located there could be sold. And the Dutchman, who was originally from Germany, also refused to agree to allow 25 wind turbines to be installed in the area, something that would have netted the families some €6,000 for each of the structures.
Such were the threats and hostility suffered by Verfondern from the family, that he took to recording them with a video camera. He went to the authorities to claim he was suffering what he called ‘rural terrorism’, and he also began to send his recordings to the Spanish press, convinced that something could happen to him.
‘They’ve already attacked me with the axe, with sticks, with sickles …’ he said at the time. ‘Any day now Carlos will shoot me. He’s got the brains of a 10-year-old boy, and when he gets nervous he yells, “I’m going to get my rifle!”’
In one of the videos, one of the sons, Juan Carlos, who is carrying his shotgun, is asked by Verfondern if he is going after boar.
‘I’m going after you,’ comes the chilling response. ‘You’re nice and fat now and ready for killing.’
And so it came to pass. In January 2010, Juan Carlos – who has an intellectual disability – killed his neighbour with his firearm as he drove by in his car.
His brother, Julio Rodriguez, helped Juan Carlos to hide the car, the body and to cover up the crime.
Verfondern’s wife, Margo Pool, was abroad at the time of the murder, but foul play was immediately suspected. For four years the Rodriguez family denied that they had been involved in the disappearance, but Pool was convinced they were behind it.
It wasn’t until June 2014 that a police helicopter finally located the burnt-out remains of the vehicle and Verfondern’s remains.
Juan Carlos confessed, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder. Julio was not convicted for covering up the crime, given that close relatives are not subject to that charge under the Spanish Criminal Code.
Margo Pool was given her husband’s remains in a cardboard box, and following his wishes buried them on their property.
Despite the horror of what happened, the now-69-year-old refused to leave Petin, and is currently its only inhabitant.
‘I love this life, and despite what happened, I’m not scared of anything, I have no doubt that I want to stay,’ she told regional newspaper La Voz de Galicia in 2019. Once the tense conclusion to The Beasts is over, a dedication appears on the screen. It simply reads: ‘To Margo.’
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