In the sporting world, bullfighting remains the epitome of contradiction, where grace begets gore and patience rewards ego. Such unsettling dichotomies haunt Francesco Rosi's The Moment of Truth, a dangerously alive film that jumps down from the stands and into the ring where Spanish toreros dance a prolonged tango with beasts whose one instinct is to gorge whatever body part they can. In an attempt to grasp a sense of immediacy from convention, Rosi leans heavily on a gripping hand-held aesthetic, seemingly pinning his fluid camera to the flamboyant garb of his strutting protagonists as they tempt fate on a daily basis. While much of The Moment of Truth can be surmised within a very generic sports-genre arc (rise and fall, temptation of riches), this is most definitely a film that lives and breathes in the details of experience, and it's hard not to admire its unabashed dedication to controlled chaos and incompleteness despite the difficult subject matter.
The Moment of Truth opens with a slow-moving avalanche of packed bodies and ambient noise, tracking a procession for the San Fermín festival moving through the streets of Pamplona, the small but infamous Spanish town in the Andalusian countryside. Large groups of devout parishioners lift an epic gold statue littered with candles and orate draping down a cramped alleyway, reaching an open square where participants take turns dodging rampaging bulls. The scene is absolute madness, with no structure or elegance in sight. When Rosi isn't shooting from horn level, he cuts above to an expansive bird's-eye shot and watches the gigantic animals level their human prey in striking observational mode. One face inevitably stands out from the crowd, a poised young man named Miguel (Miguel Mateo), who not only avoids getting battered in the mayhem, but also manages to kill one of the bulls. Unscathed yet unimpressed with his own accomplishment, Miguel returns home to his family's poor excuse for a farm, where his father circles endlessly on a horse drawn plow caught in a permanent state of apathy.
It quickly becomes clear that this life of poverty is driving Miguel mad, and he quickly decides to leave the countryside for the bustling urban metropolis of Barcelona in order to find economic freedom. At first, Miguel's vision of the future appears quite contained, focused primarily on getting a trade job with long-term security. But Miguel's blue-collar experience quickly sours, and he turns to the art of bullfighting to find fame and fortune. This professional transition isn't based on passion but garnering wealth, and elements of The Moment of Truth are geared toward demystifying the artistry and glamour of the sport by framing it as a means to an end Miguel knowingly exploits, natural talent be damned. Guided by a series of male mentors, some earnest, like his original bullfighting instructor (famous teacher Pedro Basauri), and others obviously self-serving and manipulative (such as his agent, played by José Gomez Sevillano), Miguel becomes a star living inside a pressure-cooker lifestyle. In what becomes a grueling schedule, he must travel everywhere from the glorious arenas of Madrid to the farthest reaches of the Spanish countryside in order to sustain his place of public prestige.
The process eventually becomes too much for this machine-like matador, and Miguel begins to foresee disaster on the horizon, a feeling that begins to materialize in the form of physical ailments and emotional disintegration. By this point, the film's constant impetus on the gory details and procedures of bullfighting begins to exhaust the viewer as well. A correlation represents itself in the sobering details of Miguel's hollowed out eyes and aching body, paralleled by the blood-drenched fur of the bull's neck and pools of red in the yellow sand. If one truth rings loudest, it's that both man and beast eventually wear down from the constant combat of the ring. In this sense, The Moment of Truth essentially deals with the fear of working incredibly hard and coming away with nothing, a life wasted on due diligence and honor. Since actor Miguel Mateo was a real-life matador in Spain, nicknamed "Miguelin" by his countrymen, you can sense his performance is centered on this state of confused and tragic passion gone awry.
Throughout The Moment of Truth, there's an emphasis on methodology and ideology of the bullfighting profession. Here, poetic wisdoms—like "you must think only of the bull" and "the bull is sacred"—are often used to justify the more sinister undercurrents of greed and sacrifice, even when the bullfighting scenes themselves attain a level horrific purity beyond words. Furthering the theme of contradiction to include matters of economy and tradition, Rosi positions these near-metaphysical moments against the corruption and manipulation examined by many sports films, from Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday to John Sayles's Eight Men Out. Exhaustion seems to be at the center of those movies, and The Moment of Truth is no different. In the end, blood sports of all kinds are unforgiving, even to those seemingly untouchable warriors crowned into sainthood by the mass delusions of their peers.
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Dusty brown and washed out, Criterion's 1080p transfer helps capture the tonal essence of living and dying in the bullfighting ring. This is a film that depends on mise-en-scène to convey tone; the transfer manages to achieve a nice grainy effect that lends a sense of urgency to the harsh imagery. Also, from the stinging brightness of the matador's muleta to the deep richness of the bull's pooling arterial spray, the many shades of red in the film act as bridge between themes of life and death, delusion and reality. Audibly, the monaural soundtrack is perfectly serviceable, balancing out the layers of ambient noise with the film's occasional foray into music.
Barebones to say the least. Only a dated interview with director Francesco Rosi where the filmmaker talks at length about the making of The Moment of Truth. "There was no screenplay. There was merely an idea," Rosi confesses in the opening moments, highlighting his own intoxication with bullfighting, documentary aesthetics, and on-location filming. Also included is a wonderful essay by Sight & Sound contributor Peter Matthews, whose contextualization of the film in both film history and art history somewhat makes up for the less than expansive supplemental package.
The Moment of Truth, Francesco Rosi's infamous and beguiling depiction of man versus nature, finally arrives on home video under the Criterion crest.