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A stirring tale of one grizzled guy’s struggles to maintain his home and his dignity in the face of market forces, Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s debut The Shepherd works up its simple man vs. system premise into a rich and compelling drama that, like an erring sheep, loses its way somewhat over the home stretch. Buoyed by an intense central performance by Miguel Martin, the film is part rural drama, part social critique and part homage to the harsh landscapes of central Spain, its low-budget ambitions no greater than to tell its important little story effectively. Mission accomplished: Further festival interest following the film’s triple Raindance triumph should extend The Shepherd’s flock of followers.
We meet Anselmo (and his dog Pillo) preparing for a new day in his run-down shack, stuck just beyond the edge of a village. A striking outdoor sequence in the first minutes elegantly summarizes what his life is all about as he plies his lonely trade in misty fields amidst the wide landscapes of Salamanca in central Spain and even finding time to skim stones, as Tim Walters’ simple, effective score rises.
Idealized but not sentimentalized — as indeed the character himself is not — this sequence shows us that Anselmo is happy, something which most of the other characters don’t believe he can be, and shows that Cenzual Burley has the right cinematographic feel for the shepherd, his sheep and their landscape — three elements which the sequence shows as being inseparable from one another.
But trouble inevitably rolls up in the form of a couple of local businessmen who want to buy Anselmo’s land and build property on it (property which, given what we know about the problems in the Spanish construction industry, would probably remain empty anyway.) Unimpressed by their slimy, flashy offers of an “injection of capital,” Anselmo flatly refuses, so a couple of local men — suave slaughterhouse owner Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchia) and pathetic, hen-pecked Paco (Juan Luis Sara) — are sent to bring him round, initially gently, later less so.
Most of the film’s flaws are squeezed into its final 15 minutes, when the admirable self-control displayed by the script suddenly seems to evaporate with an unexpected onrush of events, one of which is frankly risible: Watching a group of boys playing around a well, Miguel mutters to himself, “One of them will fall in” -— and then, right on cue, one of them does.
Actually less a tale of David vs. Goliath than a tale of David vs. slightly larger David, the script is very good at showing how money — love of it and lack of it — can create fissures in even the most tightly knit communities. With this kind of storyline, characters can often too easily separated into hero and villain, but over the last half-hour, the focus shifts from Anselmo to the financial struggles of Julian and Paco, who are shown to have issues of their own which are making them desperate; to explain them away as merely greedy is to miss the point. This is what prevents The Shepherd from being just a simple story of good vs. bad and elevates it into a thoughtful, if slightly obvious, parable about the insidious, destructive power of cash.
Anselmo’s disdain for money is something the other characters can’t comprehend. He is not selling, but it’s not because he doesn’t need the money — it’s because he’s not interested in money at all. That makes him quite a saintly figure in this day and age, and Cenzual Burley does well not to idealize a character who could very easily be wearing an irritating halo. In order to demonstrate that Anselmo is not the village idiot that some consider him to be — and worse — the script has him visiting the library, reading Dickens and befriending the librarian Conchi (Maribel Iglesias), the one character who is sympathetic towards this isolated man. Both the character — good but too stubborn — and Miguel Martin’s nicely self-deprecating performance are well-judged.
The photography adds up to a celebration of the unforgiving landscapes of central Spain, with some memorable and unusual stylistic flourishes thrown in — a vertical shot looking down on Miguel’s flock is one example, while another, watching Miguel as a tiny silhouette advancing along a dusk horizon, is indeed cliche, but of the breathtaking kind.
Production companies: Jonathan Cenzual Burley, Matchbox Films
Cast: Miguel Martin, Alfonso Mendiguchia, Juan Luis Sara, Maribel Iglesias, Jaime Santos, MAite Iglesias
Director-screenwriter-producer-director of photography-editor: Jonathan Cenzual Burley
Executive producer: Murray Dibbs
Production designer: Laura Drewett
Composer: Tim Walters
Not rated, 105 minutes
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