In his Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote of bullfighting, "it is a tragedy, the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the animal.” Varyingly, Hemingway referred to bullfighting as one of the only true sports (along with motor racing and mountaineering) and as an art, "a decadent art" and the only one "in which the artist is in danger of death..." Identifying the key word of bullfighting as "suerte," Hemingway explores its meaning as an "act," a "hazard," and "destiny": more suggestions of classical tragedy. While initially inspired by Death in the Afternoon, Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi crafts his own neorealist tragedy that crucially delineates the upward arc before the fall.
Rosi wisely cast actual torero Miguel Mateo (a.k.a. "Miguelín") as the film's like-named protagonist. The young Miguel has determined not to live out his life in the minimal sustenance afforded by rural life (and endorsed by his father, a man of simple pleasures); the siren call of the city lures Miguel to Barcelona, where his naive expectations meet harsh reality. Here too is a programmatic future of hard labor for little reward—that is, if he can even land a job. Again staring down a lifetime of disappointment, Miguel looks longingly at a poster of a celebrated torero. Having already happily tempted fate in a Pamplona bull run, Miguel puts his outsized confidence once more to the test, impatiently rising through the ranks of nobody student and ambitious upstart on the way to becoming a star performer. He discovers it's somewhat lonely at the top, where few (not even the experienced small and big-time impresarios who take him there) truly understand the art of bullfighting, its insistence on bravado and fear, its draining physical and emotional punishment.
Miguel's fatal flaw is his inability to determine when enough is enough. Like a motor racer or a mountaineer, a torero's days are numbered, and though Miguel insists he's only in it until he has earned "enough money," it's not at all clear what constitutes "enough." He buys his parents an estate and himself a flashy convertible (another fringe benefit: at least one prize female conquest, whose tryst with Miguel suggests a similarly heady brew of fearsome life-and-death tangling). Though he becomes more than comfortable in financial terms, Miguel feels trapped by the obligations laid before him by his manager and more so by his own need to live in the ring, in that heightened state of living that is near-death. Rosi subtly maps Miguel's desire to escape and insistent return to defined spaces: on the run from the circular tilling of his father's field, the young man winds up living in the arena; he trades the prison-like cubicle of a dingy rooming house for the plush prisons of his hotel rooms and the car that seems to take him further and further from contentment (as when he visits home, finds it more appealing than he remembers, then must—as quickly as he came—return to the bullfighting circuit).
Though in melodramatic terms, the title is apt, Rosi's film could just as easily have been called "Moments of Truth." The film's fascinating framework of ornate and frightful Catholic displays establishes a thematic language of acceptable barbarism applicable to the world of bullfighting, with its carefully learned and practiced suertes, costumes, and selling point of ritualistic death. With his easy charisma, Mateo is a natural before the camera, and the film gets an incredible charge from putting its protagonist into unfakeable mortal danger. And so, on the level of documentary (ignoring the Italian dubbing), this fable of the disposable performer rising above his class transcends ordinary fiction to be an expressive visual record of the art of bullfighting: primal, brutal, repellent and magnetic in equal measure. Hemingway would surely approve.
Criterion revives The Moment of Truth with a typically outstanding A/V presentation, bolstered by a thoughtful package of supplementary material. Image quality is excellent in presenting the source material as its makers intended. Film grain is thick, but not intrusive, while color is accurate and vibrant. The 300mm lens used by the cinematographers occasionally results in fleeting softness, but the image is generally handsome and clean, thanks to Criterion's proprietary digital cleanup tools. One scene includes a split-second frame jump—but I presume that's a less-than-ideal editing choice on Rosi's part and not a deficiency of the print source. The LPCM mono track isn't going to blow anyone away, but as cleaned up by Criterion, it's hard to imagine the audio getting a better treatment. I found it entirely sufficient in putting across the story, which is engrossing enough to make one forget you're not hearing surround sound.
There's only one bonus feature on the disc, but it's tantalizing: a Criterion-exclusive 2004 interview with director "Francesco Rosi" (13:52, HD), in which he explains the origins of the project, his approach to the material, the collaboration with his cinematographers, and the process of getting authentic bull-running and bullfighting footage on film. Also of note is the twenty-page color booklet included with the disc, which offers stills, credits, specs, and a terrific essay by film critic and professor Peter Matthews.
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