Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s As Bestas closed the 2023 Miami Film Festival with a roar. The rural thriller landed after cleaning out at the Goya Awards - the Spanish equivalent to the Oscars with 17 nominations and nine wins, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also took the Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film against Oscar nominees Triangle of Sadness, Close, EO, and fellow Miami programer Cairo Conspiracy. Some of those titles cross with the nominees for Best International Film Oscar. The Spanish Academy chose Alcarrás as its candidate for the Academy Awards, nixing any chance of a Hollywood showdown. The movie hardly needs it, so commercial is its ease at melding drama, volatile class anxiety, and current environmental concerns.
The title suggests men’s affinity for violence but also refers to a cultural tradition in Galicia, Spain. During La Rapa das Bestas, as named in the basque language, folks round up wild horses to cut off their manes and tails. To do so, they close their eyes with their hands while another one holds the tail. You can imagine wild animals dislike the process and forcefully resist. The movie opens with a slow-motion scene of men submitting a horse as the initial credits fade in over it. At times, you only see male bodies intertwined in somewhat homoerotic fashion. The movie does not follow that avenue, although some old-fashioned sexual panic eventually comes into play. As Bestas is concerned with toxic masculinity and the gaping cultural divide between the poor and the better-off.
An AITA contest for the ages: Zahera and Ménochet get on a violent stare-down contest in As Bestas / Photo courtesy of Latido Films, Greenwich Entertainment & Curzon
The movie begins properly at the town’s tavern, where Xan (Luis Zahera) holds court as the resident alpha male. Full of bluster and bravado, he complains about the service provided by a fertilizer provider and pushes everyone to agree with his grievances. We will never meet the target of his ire, but the lengthy conversation masterfully introduces him as the blowhard antagonist. Antoine (Denis Menochet) walks in to get a drink with a virtual target on his back. He is a retired professor who left neighboring France to fulfill his dream of running an eco-conscious farm and restoring abandoned rural cabins. However, his real offense is voting to block a wind energy project aiming to root in the community. The two men engage in a slow-simmering battle of wills, escalating confrontations to unspeakable violence.
There is a long tradition of movies that explode the cultural clash between the well-to-do and the poor for maximum shock value. They thrived in the seventies, perhaps as a reaction to the counterculture, crossing genres and running the gamut from award-worthy drama - Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) - to cult classics - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) -, passing through pulpy provocations like Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah,1971). As Bestas zeroes in on a particular phenomenon, as new generations migrate en masse to the big cities, abandoning agricultural labor and their small towns for better paying white collar jobs and urban comforts.
Antoine’s heart might be in the right place, yet he fails to grasp how historical poverty colors Xan’s attitude toward his values. There are also degrees of eco-commitment that come into play to complicate things even further. Wind farms may provide green energy, but detractors call them out for visual pollution and posing a risk to migrating birds. There is no speechifying around Antoine’s reasons, but we can grasp they connect with his idea of what rural life should be. The dream of this educated foreigner goes against the realities suffered by a poor, uneducated land laborer. For the privileged self-fashioned farmer, the money the wind farm might bring in is not worth the price of ruining the view. For the real farmer, it would be a life changing windfall - the idealization of rural life is an unexpected byproduct of environmental conscience. It is different to work the land because you want to, as opposed to because you have to.
One man's idyllic paradise is another one's awful workplace: Ménochet and dog take in the view in As Bestas / Photo courtesy of Latido Films, Greenwich Entertainment & Curzon
“Why don’t you sign?” asks Xan in a tense conversation. “Because it is my home,” answers Antoine. He is right. He bought a plot of land a few years ago and moved into it, but how does that compare to the sense of ownership of a man barely scraping by and whose family has occupied the land for generations? Not well. “Every time I wake up at 5:00 a.m. I think of you, and another beautiful day begins”, he says, and by beautiful, he means horrible.
Hostilities escalate, and every difference between the two men becomes ammunition in their battle of wills. Xan deploys some old-fashioned xenophobia, always calling Antoine Frenchy. As a local, he can count on some degree of leniency from the authorities. It comes in handy as his harassment escalates. Antoine’s advantages in life get weaponized against him: an educated, rich foreigner should be tolerant of the poor peasants next door. Right? At a breaking point, Antoine corners his foes - Xan’s feeble-minded brother Lorenzo (Diego Anido), who is coming along for the ride - into an open-hearted dialogue. Antoine is the opposite of the young eco-terrorist featured on How To Blow Up A Pipeline (Daniel Goldhaber, 2022). He is teaching by example and wants to know why it is not working. The problem is that he is not listening.
Men fight, women bear the brunt: Marina Fois harvests some misery in As Bestas / Photo courtesy of Latido Films, Greenwich Entertainment & Curzon
As tension escalates and the movie brings you to the brink of expecting civil Antoine will go full Death Wish on his foes - another ingredient of the genre -, Sorogoyen performs a deft, unexpected switch of perspective that pushes As Bestas to the next level, bringing the mechanics of the revenge thriller to a humane, mournful dimension. Sorogoyen already pulled a bait-and-switch of this order on his debut feature film, Estocolmo (2013), started as a youthful romantic comedy before letting a sudden head-butt into a bathroom mirror reveal a darker dimension. Give your Spanish a workout and check my ancient review on the zombie blog that roams the web answering to my name.
Sorogoyen does a masterful job at tightening and releasing the tension, keeping in check the tools of the trade. There are no quick-cut montages with characters with sudden superhero powers. He favors long, wide shots that take in the ambiance. You get the beauty of nature but also its mercilessness. Ménochet is amazing, deploying his imposing physique as another expression of privilege over the reedy peasants. His heavy-lidded eyes supply the anguish of a progressive man pushed to the limits of his belief system. Zahera pulls out all the stops in the kind of role that can catapult him into the international scene - you can also see him in a supporting role on the hit TV series Wrong Side of the Tracks (Entrevías), currently streaming on Netflix -. The soul of the movie belongs to Marina Foïs. Sometimes, when men go to war, women bear the brunt of their hate.
A documentary that explores our complex relationship with nature itself and our contradictory behavior of caging what we fear may be lost.Stream Now
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