Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Moment of Rosi

Yesterday saw the passing of Francesco Rosi, who made (among many others) the excellent CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI, SALVATORE GIULIANO, and HANDS OVER THE CITY. Rosi leaves behind an impressive (and underseen) body of work that is an interesting marriage of neorealism and New Wave sensibilities. I hope his passing renews interest in his work.

Below is an appreciation I wrote of his 1965 bullfighting saga, THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (which contains an unfortunate STAR WARS analogy but please look past that).

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Francesco Rosi’s THE MOMENT OF TRUTH is a blood-soaked poem observing (if not totally celebrating) the gory pageantry of the bullfighting circuit.

The film begins with an extended, dialogue-less trek through a religious festival in a Spanish city. Onlookers line the street while Catholic acolytes in Klan-like capirotes lumber through clouds of incense, holding grotesque statues of Jesus and the Virgin. 

The eerie, slow-paced ritual is suddenly interrupted by a group of manic bulls pushing and bucking their way through the crowd. The solemnity is shattered; people are trampled and tossed and one of the bulls is vanquished for the camera. This is the first of many unsimulated animal deaths in the film. The squeamish are hereby advised.

After this mesmerizing open, Rosi's film temporarily adopts a bare-bones narrative (MOMENT is probably a 70/30 blend of documentary footage and staged drama). We meet Miguel Romero (played by real-life matador Miguel Mateo), who is sort of a neorealist Luke Skywalker – stuck in the Andulusian backwater of Jaen, destined to inherit his father’s dusty farm, Miguel yearns for the adventure and romance that await him in the larger “galaxy” of Barcelona.

Despite his father’s admonishment – “nothing’s better than a glass of wine or a slice of bread in your own home” – Miguel soon departs to try his fortune in the city. Though he doesn't specifically aim to be a matador, it becomes clear – after months of literally breaking rocks for a living – that the only ticket out of poverty is to attempt the bull ring.

The film superficially follows the template of the loser-to-champion sports film that post-ROCKY audiences have become inured to: we get the struggle at the beginning, and the fiercely ascetic mentor (“No women from now on; no parties,” Miguel is told. “Think only of the bull.”). After Miguel crashes an amateur bullfight to prove his abilities against a real animal, he is quickly whisked into the big leagues by enterprising talent scouts. More obvious plot points follow: the big debut, the montage of successes, the hobnobbing with starlets and high society, the wistful return home, and the inevitable Big Match. But, for all their familiarity, these scenes are presented so nonchalantly, without manipulative music or editing, that the drama is almost an abstraction. While the human story is in no way lackluster, it takes an obvious second place to the bullfighting.

Using special lenses, Rosi and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis were able to get very close to the action in the ring and Criterion’s pristine Blu transfer bears this out. Every fleck of foam and drop of blood is rendered in graphic detail, leading to plenty of wince-worth moments. 

Despite the talk of Miguel’s trainer -- who espouses the “grace and great elegance” of the sport – THE MOMENT OF TRUTH is a bit of a harrowing gauntlet to run. The mortality rate for a bull entering the ring is 100%. Even if the torero is gored or otherwise incapacitated, there’s an eager phalanx of sword- and spear-wielding banderilleros and picadors waiting on the sidelines to hack the beast to a bloody pulp. Not since that poor giraffe in Marker’s SANS SOLEIL have I seen an animal so casually brutalized.

That said, the film is also a beautifully wrought document of a rarely seen world. Mateo comports himself well as a man struggling with his newfound celebrity and his sense of mortality. Forgotten for many years, Rosi's film is an adrenal mini-epic well worth a look for viewers with a strong stomach.

Please note: The frame grabs above are NOT from the Bluray and are not indicative of the transfer; to have a look at a fine gallery of MOMENT images, head over to DVD Beaver. Here's an example:

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