There’s one thing I can say about every bullfighting movie I’ve seen: I’m always rooting for the bull.
I don’t know if director Francesco Rosi considered this possibility when he made “The Moment of Truth” (1965), but by situating his protagonist as a charnel house victim whose blood will satisfy the citizenry just as well as the bull’s, he complicates the matter of identification for even the staunchest animal rights advocate. As Miguel (played by real-life torero Miguel Mateo) traces circles in the dirt while riding a ramshackle, horse-drawn plow on his family farm, it’s easy to understand why he might dream of a better life. The dream takes him first to Barcelona where he sets the modest goal of simply making an honest living. It only takes him a few months to realize even this quotidian dream is unrealistic. He can only secure a job through a money lender who generously allows him to keep precisely as much money as he needs to pay his bills. He sees his future: a year of back-breaking labor from now, he’ll be in the exact same place. Miguel may be just another unskilled laborer, but he is nobody’s fool.
The determined young man decides to play a different game, using his meager savings to enroll in a bullfighter’s school headquartered in the basement of a bar. The no-frills training routines are borderline risible, but Miguel thrives under the tutelage of a feisty instructor who may have been the cinematic inspiration for Rocky Balboa’s Mick (“Women… they’ll break your legs,” he tells Miguel.) Though an apparent natural, Miguel harbors no romantic notions about his new profession. He is selling his body, and the bodies of his bovine opponents, for cash, something he was already doing for the money lender, but at least now he’s got a chance to win the lottery. And win he does, and the crowds cheer louder and louder as the wins pile up. Until the winning streak ends, as we all know it must.
Hemingway is one of many writers to spew a lot of hyper-macho claptrap around the so-called romance of the so-called sport of bullfighting. It’s nonsense, but there’s no denying that there is a fearful beauty about the ring. Rosi and his cameramen shot with a 300mm lens during actual festivals and fights and, with a real torero in the lead, they were able to capture some vivid and gut-wrenching footage. Mateo is a graceful athlete, and the fights are a colorful display of sun-baked dust, billowing reds, and intimate, carefully controlled dance steps, but it will be difficult to appreciate the ballet if you are, unlike the roaring spectators that fill each stadium to capacity, attuned at all to the suffering of the bull.
Be warned that the footage in the film is genuinely graphic. We watch several bulls pierced by javelins and slowly bleeding out (or sometimes gushing equal parts blood and bubbling sweat) before the torero administers the coup de grace with his sword in “the moment of truth.” Any suggestion that there’s some kind of partnership or kindred spirit between the bullfighter and the bull is, to put it bluntly, pure bullshit. This is just dumb slaughter from start to finish, though Rosi makes a convincing case that both combatants are ultimately the victims of a grinding socio-economic system that demands blood sacrifice. You want our money? Suffer, and make it look good too.
Rosi is a favored director of the Criterion Collection (his better-known “Salvatore Giuliano” and “Hands Over the City” are already enshrined), so it’s not a surprise that they would champion one of his more overlooked films. What is mildly surprising is that they would do so without any mention of the most obvious controversy regarding the film. Neither the sole extra (an interview with Rosi) or the liner essay by Peter Matthews questions the graphic depiction of animal cruelty in the film; presumably the documentary impulse is sufficient justification. At the very least viewers should be made aware of what they’re in for. I don't know for certain how much some of the close-up action was simulated or real, but some of the shots in the film could not have been faked.
Instead, the film is celebrated for its readily apparent aesthetic virtues. The adjectives “gritty” and “visceral” may be over-used, but they are aptly applied here, and not just because of the bullfighting sequences. Individual scenes serve as documentaries unto themselves, including the opening which films a strange ritual/parade with menacingly costumed revelers who could just as easily have sprung from a medieval painting as 1960s Spain. The use of the telephoto lens strips away any sense of artifice. Rosi and his crew don’t let viewers get off easy with any Hollywood “Blood and Sand” style staginess with strategic editing designed to make hunky stars look like real bullfighters. If you want to “enjoy” the brutal spectacle, you’re going to have to wallow in it. Whether you want to or not is another matter.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Much of “The Moment of Truth” was shot on the fly with the aforementioned telephoto lens zooming in on the action in the ring or questing for images in a pulsating crowd, so the image couldn’t always be tightly controlled, and natural lighting doesn’t always provide perfect matches. However, the film’s muddy, grainy, slightly washed-out look (the bullfighter’s reds are still rich, but they aren’t as vibrant as the reds in other high-def transfers, nor are they meant to be) is just right for the material. There are some signs of damage visible – flecks from the source print, the occasional scratches – but nothing that interferes with the overall presentation.
The LPCM Mono track isn’t pristine, but it’s more than serviceable. Audiences may or may not be bothered by the fact that the film set in Spain with Spanish actors is in Italian, but you’ll learn to live with it. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
Criterion has only provided one extra, a 2004 interview with Rosi who talks about his use of the 300mm lens and shooting at the San Fermin Festival (in Pamplona, and best known to most for the running of the bulls who get in their fair shots on some of the festival goers in the early scenes).
The 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Peter Matthews who passionately defends a film he sees as unfairly overlooked and dismissed.
“The Moment of Truth” may or may not be “the best bullfighting film ever made” as some have claimed. If it is, I’m not sure that’s something to brag about. If you can handle the graphic bullfighting sequences without sinking (deeper) into misanthropy at the spectacle, you might be astonished by this stark, unsparing and ugly-beautiful drama from Francesco Rosi. But in case you’re skimming to the bottom, be warned again: there are brutal scenes of animal cruelty in the film.