Friday, 2 June 2017

By hook or by crook: "The Shepherd"

Jonathan Cenzual Burley is the Spanish-born, British-schooled writer-director whose work thus far (2011's The Soul of Flies, 2014's The Year and the Vineyard) has been founded on droll contradictions. While plainly a big-picture imagemaker, inclined towards filling his widescreen frames with the timeless landscapes of rural Spain, his writing has positioned him as a minimalist in the Hal Hartley line, putting front and centre wryly observed, tentative interactions between individuals who seem somehow out of place in these environments: literally so in the case of the International Brigade fighter who passed through a wormhole into the present in The Year and the Vineyard. Somewhere behind the camera and within these films, you sense an old soul duelling for supremacy with a very modern, ironic sensibility. 

His third film The Shepherd marks a break of sorts, in that it centres on a figure who is entirely at home in this great beyond, and expresses no desire to budge from it. This is Anselmo (Miguel Martin), a middle-aged shepherd who lives in a rudimentary shack with only his loyal dog Pillo for company, and no mod cons such as a phone or a television to show for himself. (As the local bartender tells him, "Shit, man, you live in the Stone Age.") Modernity is about to impose itself upon him, however. One morning, a car pulls up outside his home and expels two representatives of a construction company, here to inquire whether or not he'd be interested in selling up, as his neighbours have, to make way for a proposed housing development.

Anselmo's answer, naturally, is a big fat no, which leads us into an impasse familiar from the recent Brazilian film Aquarius: all of a sudden, it's not just a man versus The Man, but The Man and an entire community (who, as they insistently point out to Anselmo, only get paid when everybody's accepted the offer) versus a man who's never seemed lonelier - a holdout from another age, where an individual might still have some say in their destiny. What Cenzual Burley has in his favour is a certain brevity of expression. Aquarius went round the houses to make its point about the mounting cost and pressures of progress, but The Shepherd has a way of crystallising its central conflict in images that pinpoint exactly where we are.

That shack, for one, begins to look less independent than vulnerable, when Cenzual Burley sets it against the vastness of this horizon; and you don't have to think too long and hard to see how the shots of Anselmo's sheep, unthinkingly headed in the same direction, or the slaughterhouse at which their keeper is offered regular work in exchange for ceding his land ("It's surprising how easily you can learn to kill"), might feed back into the editorial line. If there's a limitation, it's that three films into his career, Cenzual Burley still gives off a rather quiet, scholarly air: his sensibility is such that he appears reluctant to make a noise in the way Kleber Mendonça Filho did with Aquarius's pop soundtrack and uninhibited sex.

The Shepherd eventually shapes up as this filmmaker's most forceful and serious endeavour yet - its final reel pushing into tense, nocturnal thriller territory - but even in a week of just six releases, I wonder whether a film this determinedly low-key is doomed to slip through the cracks. That'd be a shame, as Anselmo's plight meshes with the plight of skilled labourers in many fields, including a never more commercialised cinema. I'd love to see Cenzual Burley's contribution to the DC or Marvel universes, not least as it would doubtless feature a bearded, potbellied greyhair pottering round Catalonia in a rusting suit of armour. (And there'd be no city to trash.) This gentle yet persuasive statement of principles is, however, enough to insinuate why he probably wouldn't be steered in that direction.  

The Shepherd is now playing in selected cinemas.

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