Il momento della verità | The Moment of Truth
DIRECTOR: Francesco Rosi | WRITERS: Pedro Beltrán, Ricardo Muñoz Suay, Pere Portabella, Francesco Rosi | CAST: Miguel Mateo “Miguelín”, José Gómez Sevillano, Pedro Basauri “Pedrucho”, Linda Christian | Italy
It took watching Il momento della verità a second time for me to grasp, or at any rate think I grasped, what Francesco Rosi was after. The movie follows the conventional story arc of an ambitious young man of no means who migrates from the hardscrabble countryside to the big city and through sheer determination and force of will — coupled with striking good looks and superb physical grace — gains fame and fortune, in this case as a bullfighter. And yet it seems flat and two-dimensional, the scenes jerkily piled one on the other rather than smoothly and organically pushing the story further, the characters types rather than individuals. What is undeniable, however, is the terrible beauty that Rosi captures, whether it’s the religious processions that bookend the film or the bullfights themselves. (Il momento della verità was filmed in Technicolor — and Techniscope! — on markedly grainy film stock, and when Rosi switches to 300 mm lenses for the bullfighting scenes themselves the images are startling in their intensity.)
Rosi’s impersonal documentary approach to the material started to make sense to me when I watched the movie again. His interest is not in the individual psychologies of his characters or in specific actions considered by themselves, but rather in how these people and events are instances in a larger pattern. (I’m vague here since I haven’t thought it through, but I see the film as profoundly anti-status quo, anti-Francoism with its rigid adherence to the old in the modern world. I could be full of shit, though.) We’re never invited inside Miguel Romero’s head, but we don’t need to see inside, the surface is enough. Miguel seizes on bullfighting as his way to escape the grinding urban poverty he found himself in when he left the impoverished countryside of his youth, and indeed Miguelín, as he becomes known, has only a mercenary interest in bullfighting. For him it’s a job as lucrative as it is dangerous and he knows he’s good at it.
Rosi’s documentary approach is at its strongest in the bullfighting scenes which are shown dispassionately, in rapid bursts of energy with the camera occasionally lingering on a telling, often gruesome detail. But if Miguelín focuses on the doingness of bullfighting leaving the aesthetics to others, Rosi strikes a middle ground. For all the inhumane bloodthirstiness of the drawn-out and ritualized taunting and slaughter of the bulls, which Rosi shows us is all it is when carried out by village peasants and mediocre toreros alike, it can approach the status of art when a Miguelín steps into the arena. Miguel Mateo, the famous torero Miguelín in real life, is a natural on camera: dark-haired and handsome, he moves with the power and animal grace of a dancer. Three cinematographers are listed in the credits and they all deserve praise. I was not happy that the film was shot silent and dubbed into Italian, but that distancing from the characters didn’t detract disastrously for me (it would be too much to expect me to give such practice my approval). What did bother me, and it continues to bother me, is that Rosi’s attempt to strike a middle ground between documentary and fiction ultimately doesn’t quite work. For me, anyway. I think I’d have preferred true cinéma vérité or perhaps a nakedly Brechtian approach to the material. Still, this is a beautiful and powerful movie.
Yes: I did not denounce bullfighting as criminally savage and brutal and an affront to all right-thinking people everywhere. Sport hunting is all that and worse and I happily denounce weekend warriors with their hunting licenses who slaughter completely defenseless animals for the sheer hell of it. Nor did I praise it as a sport — I detest sports of all kinds unless they can be aestheticized — nor as an art form. I do think aspects of tauromaquia can be aestheticized and I do respond positively to that without ever quite being able to shake how horrifying it really is.