“The confrontation between intelligence and animal instinct, between reasoning and brute force … without artistry and style, it becomes vulgar butchery, and it’s merely disgusting and cruel.”
- Francesco Rosi
Sometimes the subject matter of a film can present an obstacle to judging it fairly. I felt myself faced with this issue when I started watching Criterion’s new release of Francesco Rosi’s The Moment of Truth (1965) because the mere idea of bullfighting appalls me. And yet, as Rosi gets beneath the skin of the subject, I found my reservations disappearing and my appreciation of the film growing.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Rosi made a series of powerful films set in southern Italy, dealing with the influence of organized crime and political corruption on the lives of the people there, subjects which he would return to again in later years. But after his masterpiece Salvatore Giuliano (1962), he was uncertain what subject to tackle next. What he eventually settled on, with the support of the publisher Angelo Rizzoli as executive producer, was bullfighting in Spain.
The Moment of Truth differs from Rosi’s earlier work in several ways, most notably in the use of colour for the first time, but also significantly in its setting in a country and culture distanced from Rosi’s familiar home ground. On a superficial level, Rosi seems to resort to cliches to deal with the unfamiliarity of the material. The bare bones narrative shares obvious elements with previous melodramas using bullfighting as a backdrop, most notably the various versions of Blood and Sand produced in Hollywood from the 1909 novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.
Miguel Romero (Miguel Mateo) is the restless son of a farmer struggling to survive in a remote, parched area of Spain. He decides to seek his fortune in Barcelona, but finds that his tenuous contacts there can’t help him to find work. After months, earning little, unable to get ahead, he sees a poster for a famous matador in a bar and realizes that such a celebrity can make very large sums of money; so he trains as a torero and begins to make a name for himself, until eventually he achieves fame and fortune.
In the four decades since the film was made, it seems to have been largely ignored, or garnered very little critical favour, because of the perceived cliches. And yet, a film is often far more than the sum of its surface elements, and this is the case with The Moment of Truth; the “what” of the story is less important than the “how” of the telling. Rosi had a fine eye for social detail and this film is far richer than a synopsis can convey, while the lush photography perhaps disguises to some degree the director’s neo-realist approach. As in his previous works, here Rosi reveals the ways in which social and economic forces constrain and shape an individual’s life.
The film opens with images of a religious festival which looks like something out of the Middle Ages; a huge, ornate, gold-covered figure of the Virgin is maneuvered through a narrow doorway into a street crowded with masked figures. Rosi focuses on the back-breaking labour of the men who have to climb under the effigy and carry it, feet shuffling precariously over stone steps. The parade is joined by military figures and with a few brief visual strokes, Rosi has evoked a society (Franco’s Spain) which is crushed under the weight of an alliance between the Church and the military dictatorship.
This is the background against which Miguelin seeks to find a way out of the poverty that weighs his father down.
When he arrives in Barcelona, he has to take a bed in a flop house and eventually gets odd labouring jobs through a money-lender who takes a big cut of his earnings. Becoming a bullfighter seems to be his only option to break the cycle. His casual fearlessness and natural physical grace make him a success, but Rosi’s careful documentary eye shows the bull fights in a way not seen in other, more romantic, movies about the subject. Using a 300mm lens, director of photography Gianni di Venanzo, puts the viewer close to the bloody violence; we can see the physical skill of the torero, the risks he takes, but also the madness and pain of the bull as it’s cut and bleeding and, with increasing exhaustion, struggles for its life.
These images are disturbing (in fact, di Venanzo eventually left the project because he couldn’t bear to watch any more of the violence, being replaced by Pasquale de Santis). So disturbing, that the excitement of the watching crowds takes on a sick atmosphere, a reminder of the primitive origins of the bullfight, with its echo of Roman “games” in which men fought to the death against other men and against wild animals for the amusement of the crowd. That this bloody display seems to offer Miguelin the only way out of poverty in Franco’s Spain becomes an indictment of the military regime and the social and religious forces which kept it in power.
Although Rosi keeps the narrative simple, The Moment of Truth is visually rich and often subtle. When we first encounter Miguel in his village, the place is stark, sun-bleached; when he returns after becoming famous, he sees the place very differently and Rosi’s images reflect that shift in perception – there’s a beauty to the work the villagers do, a nostalgia for simpler rhythms and an immediate connection between life and the work that sustains it.
In Miguel Mateo, himself a famous bullfighter, Rosi found a natural star, as relaxed in front of the camera as he appears to be in the bull ring. His performance manages to evoke viewer sympathy for the character even as we watch him closely during the moments of bloody slaughter. Unlike so many movies which use bullfighting as a backdrop, this is visceral and ugly, not romanticized, and yet much to my surprise I found it possible to admire the torero‘s skill.
Towards the end of the film, once Miguelin has achieved fame and money, he’s forced by his manager to appear in more and more fights, in small towns where there’s no prestige to be gained, and he begins to lose his taste for what he’s doing. The audiences and the men who run the show perceive the spectacle as a mixture of art and entertainment, but for the fighter it has always been nothing more than the means to an end … and inevitably, once his will to continue falters, he’s unable to maintain his performance of the role the system requires of him.
Criterion’s transfer of this little-known film is visually rich, with intense colours. The disk includes a brief interview with Rosi which illuminates the subject and his reasons for tackling it, and Peter Matthews’ essay in the accompanying booklet is informative about the film’s critical reception and its place in the body of Rosi’s work.