Friday, 10 February 2012
The Moment of Truth
Starring: Miguel Mateo 'Miguelín', Linda Christian, Pedro Basauri
By Greg Klymkiw
It's probably a "cultural thang", but I just don't get bullfighting. It's a vicious, cruel and morally reprehensible "sport" (if you can even call it that) that involves teasing, torturing, then murdering a bull for the enjoyment of blood-lusting plebes (I include the "elite" here too) in mostly Spanish-speaking countries. Actually, I'll go further - call it ethnocentric or even racist if you will (and I will care less) - but anyone who would engage actively or enjoy watching this odious "art" (if you can even call it that) has got to have something seriously wrong with them. Yes, I'm aware of bullfighting's historical "importance" to Spanish "culture" (if you can even call it that), but why and how this crime against animals can continue in this day and age is beyond me.
And yes, I consider the teasing, torturing and wanton slaughter of animals a crime. Just because it's "cultural" doesn't mean reasonable, thinking people must accept its existence.
There is a long tradition of bullfighting movies; the most well-known being the various versions of Blood and Sand (most notably the silent 1922 Rudolf Valentino version and Rouben Mamoulian's 1941 effort for Fox) and Budd Boetticher's studio butchered and recently restored The Bullfighter and the Lady. The above films are not without merit as films, but none of them can hold a candle to Francesco Rosi's The Moment of Truth.
I hate this movie, BUT The Moment of Truth is important on three fronts. First of all, it's dazzling filmmaking. Secondly, it reflects the society and politics of Spain in the 1960s in ways that also shed light on the macho-blood-lust culture that would so proudly continue to extol the virtues of this heinous activity. Finally, it is an exquisite addition to the canon of the brilliant Italian director Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Over the City, The Mattei Affair, Lucky Luciano) and, in fact, is a perfect melding of his Neo-realist and operatic tendencies (and influences).
The movie does not glorify bullfighting, but rather, it takes a no-holds-barred look at the entire world of the "sport/art" - behind the scenes and in the public spotlight. Rosi's film charts the rise of bullfighter Miguel Mateo 'Miguelín', an aimless young man who desperately seeks a better life and painstakingly learns the bullfighting ropes and rises to the top of the game. In spite of his stardom, he's still a simple country boy at heart and his handlers push him to ever-dangerous heights - exploiting him with absolutely no regard for his well-being. Miguel kills the bulls, but the men of influence kill his spirit and, in so doing, further feed the the centuries-old blood-lust of the "people".
Rosi's mise-en-scène is phenomenal. Attacking the tale with a mixture of classical, yet baroque shots reminiscent of his mentor Luchino Visconti, yet training his eye on the proceedings as a neo-realist storyteller and documentarian, this is a film that clearly springs from the loins of a born filmmaker. Sequences involving the running of bulls through the streets as their hides are pierced with ribbon-adorned harpoons, the dank basement of the bullring where Migeulin is trained by retired bullfighter Pedrucho (Pedro Basauri), the dusty rings themselves - surrounded by hordes of slavering, blood-crazed fans - these images are clearly unforgettable and, most importantly, are the real thing.
When we see fear in Migeulin's eyes as he faces an angry, snorting bull, this is not acting - it's the real thing. No rear-screen projection or opticals a la Blood and Sand are used here. It's real bullfighters, real swords, real gorings and real bulls.
While it is clear that Rosi's intent is to expose the macho myths of this world, I still find it sickening to watch. Even though it's SUPPOSED to be sickening, having to watch it is not unlike what it must be for non-pedophiles to watch real kiddie porn. Filmmakers who must take horrendous things to extremes in order to expose truth (like Kubrick, Pasolini, Scorsese, Friedkin etc.) do so within the realm of recreating violence. In The Moment of Truth, violence, pain and suffering happen for real and Rosi captures it on film with all the power and panache one would expect from a great filmmaker.
For Rosi to tell this story and explore the theme of the violent exploitation of man and beast - for him to break-down the perverse sense of masculinity that infuses the lives of those on both sides of the bullfighting world - he must, like all great artists avoid any sense of morality that will interfere with the horrors he seeks to display.
I understand this, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.
The most upsetting thing is seeing animals being teased painfully with the harpoons and to witness these beasts actually being stuck with swords, to watch - mouth agape - as real blood gushes out of these poor animals and worst of all, to bear witness to these animals having their spinal columns crushed with the cold steel of the torero's sword (and see even more blood gushing out of thee animals) is, frankly, more sickening than watching the re-created scourging and crucifixion of Our Lord in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
In spite of my revulsion, I cannot deny that Rosi is at the top of his game here. This is brave and brilliant filmmaking. However, in order to expose exploitation, Rosi must also exploit his human and animal subjects. It's even more detestable that he focuses his camera so astoundingly and unflinchingly upon the balletic grace with which the bullfighters taunt their quarry and then kill it.
There's no two ways about it.
I admire this film and I respect it.
I also hate it and wish it had never been made.
"The Moment of Truth" is available on an exquisitely mastered Bluray on the Criterion Collection - a widescreen Technicolor print that's a perfect example of a terrible beauty. The release includes a new English subtitle translation, a handsome booklet and an interview with Rosi himself.