‘The Skin of the Wolf’ (‘Bajo la piel de lobo’): Film Review | Miami Film Festival 2018

Courtesy of Miami Film Festival
Mario Casas in 'The Skin of the Wolf.'
This wolf doesn't howl.

The last inhabitant of a 19th century mountain pueblo tries his hand at cohabitation in this austere vehicle for the talents of Spanish actor Mario Casas.

The kind of high-risk, offbeat project that middle-budget Spanish cinema needs more of, Samu Fuentes’ debut feature, The Skin of the Wolf, is as brave and flawed as its central character. A low-key, leisurely tale of the last man to inhabit an otherwise abandoned pueblo in the mountains on the frontier between Spain and France, Skin plays out with the clarity, simplicity, rawness and grim poetry of a folk tale, tackling on the way some pretty elemental themes, but it’s a tale as told by a very dull speaker. By the end, viewer sensations are mixed, with pleasure at having entered a strange new world, but also frustration at its sheer lack of drama.

Bearded, bulky and brutish, Martinon (Mario Casas) lives in utter solitude in a stone house high on a mountainside at some frustratingly unspecified time in the past (apparently it’s 1830, but the script is giving nothing away). He leads an unremittingly basic existence that consists of eating, sleeping and hunting: In other words, an existence not far removed from those of the wolves that howl in the night as he lies in bed, that he shoots in the day and with which he is continually identified.

On his annual visit to the nearest village to sell his pelts, barman Severino (Kandido Uranga) tells Martinon that he should get a dog, and if he doesn’t want a dog, then he should get himself a woman: #MeToo doesn’t seem to have penetrated this particular neck of the woods. Martinon has sex in a barn with local girl Pascuala (Ruth Diaz) without so much as a word being exchanged between them either before or after: The fact that Skin is a generally wordless film is both its major strength, since it's credible that these characters would lack the language for self-expression, and its major weakness, since we can never learn anything about them.

Martinon buys Pascuala from her father, as you do, and returns home with her. Life goes on much as it did before, except that now, he can have extremely unpleasurable sex with Pascuala as a prelude to some really grim stuff. With the last-third entrance of Adela (Irene Escolar, a fine actress who received a Goya award a couple of years ago), matters perk up, for the simple reason that Adela is prepared to challenge the awfulness of her new life with Martinon and thereby bring a bit of drama, and civilization, to the proceedings. Events unfold, repetitively and relentlessly, toward inevitable tragedy.

Skin is the fictional record of a man who, lacking all civilization, starts to learn a little of what being civilized might mean. So it’s perhaps appropriate that Fuentes seems determined to tell the story with a constant eye on the elemental, eschewing practically all of the standard dramatic concessions to the extent that it looks as though stylistically he wanted to see how much he could get away with. Events unfold in a socio-historical bubble; the viewer looks in vain for anything resembling a backstory for Martinon that might help give us a handle on who he actually is; there is little or no development of his character, and dialogue is at a premium (there is a 30-minute stretch with none at all).

All of these elements give this raw, direct film a curious, hypnotic power; but on the downside, it leaves poor Casas in dramatic limbo, and we spend far too long watching him eating messily, lumbering about doing his work, making grunting noises and being obliged to communicate via facial gestures with a great big beard getting in the way. As an actor, Casas has gone from strength to strength, most recently in The Invisible Guest, Spain’s most successful offshore film of 2017, due to the massive business it did in China. But this role feels beyond him, since Martinon is indeed little more than an animal, not a character, whom the script has given too little inner life to work with. (But plenty of outer life: Casas had to load on about 25 pounds of weight for the role.)

Running 20 minutes too long, Skin is nevertheless a visual feast, capturing the stunning landscapes of the Pyrenees through a range of seasons, perhaps most hauntingly under snow. Indeed, one thing the film captures extremely well — by virtue of DP Aitor Mantxola’s crisp photography — is the sheer toughness of life on the side of a mountain, with its cold, multiple discomforts and mind-numbing tedium, as day after day the characters repeat the same activities: eating, sleeping, hunting, having sex, preparing pelts and sitting in silence, unaware of any wider world. This is indeed pretty much what it must have been like in this place 200 years ago. But it also seems to be a case of documentary authenticity triumphing over nuance, and this time the dramatic price is just too high.

Production companies: Nasa Producciones, Orreaga Filmak
Cast: Mario Casas, Irene Escolar, Ruth Diaz
Director, screenwriter: Samu Fuentes
Producers: Javier Pruano, Joseba Garmendia
Executive producer: Antonia Casado Ruiz
Director of photography: Aitor Mantxola
Art director: Mani Martinez
Costume designer: Ana Munozo
Editor: Maialen Sarasua Oliden
Composer: Paloma Penarrubia
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment

110 minutes