The Shepherd (El Pastor) is a beautiful and tragic (if formulaic) tale of the individual against the system, of want versus need, man versus nature, and the romantic longing for the bucolic that stirs our desire to reject society and live in the wilderness.
However, Anselmo, the film’s namesake and protagonist (played with endearing severity by Miguel Martin), does not live in the wilderness. His home, a small shack in northwestern Spain that he shares with his dog Pillo, rests lazily on the fringes of a small village. It is accessible by car, and he regularly walks into town for a glass or two of wine at the local bar.
Anselmo’s proximity to civilisation is crucial: by existing so near other men of his age, men with families and homes with running water and electricity, without sharing their desire to “live like a king”, he is othered. But Anselmo’s diagnosis as a “fool” by Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchia), a debt-riddled slaughterhouse owner, and “retard” by Paco (Juan Luis Sara), who’s struggling for money to send his three brattish sons to university, is misplaced. Anselmo’s taste for Dickens and Picasso lend his character a level of educated depth that doesn’t just undermine his peer’s idea of what it is to be a modern man, it subverts it: Anselmo has water. He has electricity. He has a livelihood. He knows he has enough.
Or does he? When he takes his books out from the local library, his affection for the librarian, Concha (Maribel Inglesias), betrays the idyllic isolation of his lifestyle. When he bumps into her on the bus, the look he gives when her stop arrives and she leaves suggests that he could want more, but that he’s frightened to try. He is a creature of habit, living in the same home since birth, by the same means, presumably, as his father.
Unfortunately, Anselmo doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to stemming the tide of progression. And why should he? When offered a large sum of money for his land by suited property developers, he refuses, and invites repeated, and increasingly violent, attempts to make him reconsider from Julian and Paco. This is individual versus community more than corporation, and Anselmo fails to empathise with his one-time friends because he can’t understand the pressures that mainstream society puts on them. Julian and Paco are desperate men being squeezed by money. But “envy is stronger than money”, and it is clear that, whilst the two need Anselmo to sell-up so that the developers will also buy their land, what they both want more than anything is the life Anselmo leads.
As crucial as his proximity to civilisation is Anselmo’s relationship with his land. Anselmo: a name possibly chosen as a nod to Robert Jordan’s guide in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls – Anselmo, the haggard, elderly Spanish guide whose knowledge of and attachment to the hills and mountains around Segovia in north-central Spain is echoed in Anselmo’s connection with the plains around Salamanca in The Shepherd. The civil war, or the divide between neighbours, represents an increasing and lamentable disconnect from the Earth, as men are conditioned to believe that their worth is calculated by what they can take, rather than what they can give back. The Shepherd is beautifully shot. In its opening, the cool dawn, flocks of sheep and panoramic, dusty vistas are both calming and rife with nostalgia. The tenderness with which the cinematography handles these images is reminiscent of Paulo Cuelho’s The Alchemist, and its young, idealistic protagonist: a shepherd who needs nothing, and is willing to travel the world in search of it.
The soundtrack, however, is openly anxious. It is as though the closeups of plants and animals, of water and horizons and the sunrise, signify something coming to an end, rather than beginning: red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning. Not a warning against the arrival of strangers but the toxic potential for destruction harboured by those we know best, who are far more likely to hurt and betray us than someone we’ve never met. This idea is sown in the fields upon which Anselmo tends his flock: the earth is barren, the soil parched. It’s a wonder that Anselmo and his sheep have managed to maintain their way of living this long.
Written as well as directed and produced by Jonathan Cenzual Burley, The Shepherd’s script is remarkably economic. Its subtleties are consistent, its outbursts distributed evenly and at the right moments as its less rational, more veiny-foreheaded characters unravel. It’s gradual at first, as greed gives way to desperation, with self-made men clinging on to whatever they have left after building a life in a land clearly suffering from economic hardship. But the tempo grows at an alarming rate towards a somewhat rushed ending, or a version of it, that we knew was coming. But predictability doesn’t mar its shock factor, and The Shepherd, winner of Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor at Raindance 2016, will send a high dose of electricity straight through your heart.
Review by Harry Gallon
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