Here's a weird little film: the Spanish/Peruvian coproduction Madeinusa, by first-time writer/director Claudia Llosa. What starts out looking like an ethnographic story of the religious customs of a town in the back of beyond in Peru turns, rather quickly, into a mash-up between Twin Peaks and The Wicker Man.

The story is immaterial: it is Good Friday morning when Salvador (Carlos Juan de la Torre) arrives in the exceedingly remote Peruvian town of Manayaycuna, at the moment that the mayor's daughter Madeinusa (Magaly Solier) is crowned Virgin of the Holy Time. The locals resent his presence, and he is imprisoned "for his own protection." This does not keep him from witnessing their rather unique idea of Christian worship involving, at a minimum, institutional incest and the idea that you get a free pass on sinning while God is dead, until 6:00 AM on Easter Morning.

The film is not so much about the stranger, or even Madeinusa's desire to travel to the Big City and live as a fine lady; it is about the town, in all of its strange glory, which we are told is a place no-one ever goes, and indeed where Salvador only ends up because of the freak floods further on the road. The town is a hotbed of Christianized paganism (or is that pagan Christianity), not merely in the conception of God's death and blindness, but in the strange idea of virginity and the literalisation of Madeinusa's sexual relationship to Christ. And the strangeness doesn't end at religion: there is a funeral where the mourners pour alcohol into a dead woman's mouth; the Mayor keeps a room full of Madonna statues, because he doesn't know what else to do with them; finding dead rats is a sign of luck.

As long as the film remains in this crazy Lynchian mode, it's successful; but around midway it becomes much less about the town and much more about Madeinusa's desire to flee to Lima with Salvador. Claudia Llosa is a fine director but not much of a writer, and the characterizations are thin at best. We are meant to find the girl's ambitions sympathetic at first, frightening later as the depth of her obsession to leave Manayaycuna becomes clear, but the writing can't support this, and she ends up coming across as a bit of a pill. The cast of novice actors can't do much to help, although Solier has a natural charm that makes her early scenes at least somewhat watchable.

This wouldn't be so bad if the film managed to balance the plot with its exploration of the town, but it isn't so. Right around the time that Salvador takes Madeinusa's virginity, in despite of her expectant father (the idea of ritual incest is not sufficiently developed to understand exactly what's going on here, but it is very creepy and sometimes that's sufficient by itself), the town recedes into the background and the whole film shuttles between Salvador trying to escape and Madeinusa becoming stalkery. I'd say we've all seen it done better, but that might not be true. We've all seen it done elsewhere, many times, but this isn't the sort of plot that lends itself to high art no matter how it's done.

For all her failings as a writer, Llosa is a good though not earthshaking director. The film is very vibrant and alive, especially in the early scenes, and the bright colors of the people and their costumes and their rituals is contrasted nicely with Salvador's earth tones, and the monochromatic landscape around the town. Also, she manages to get good and natural performances out of actors in the tiniest of roles, a major victor in a story of this type. There's not much interesting in terms of the camera, but this (as I well know) is a tricky thing for the first time filmmaker, and it can be forgiven in the face of such a colorful and photogenic setting.

One last quick gripe: naming a character Madeinusa, and except for a quip about the tag on a t-shirt, not using it for any satiric purpose? I'm all about avoiding the broad joke, but that's just lazy.