During the late ’60s, Italian cinema entered a period of re-renaissance. The neorealism that had propelled the Italian industry after WWII, shifted from stories of post-war decay and redemption to a darker period in which filmmakers began to question the war that was raging within. This period announced the arrival of artists like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Gillo Pontecorvo and Francesco Rosi, all of whom dealt with social issues that rose after Mussolini.
Rosi, in particular, crafted a career out of films in which he examined the repercussions of his country’s history in present day events. How could he not? Rosi first entered the industry assisting Luchino Visconti in the seminal La terra trema, which chronicled the harsh lives of a group of Sicilian fishermen.
While Rosi worked with Visconti, Miguel Mateo “Miguelín” was a young boy learning his father’s trade in Spain. Mateo’s father, commonly known as Chicuelito de Málaga, was a notorious “banderillero” (the bullfighter who plants the little flags on the bull’s shoulder) who raised his son to love and respect Spain’s most iconic and infamous sport. By the time Miguelín debuted in 1955, the “matador” gene was embedded in him.
It makes sense then, that these two men — whose life passions seem to have been carved out for them — were destined to meet and create something together. In 1965 Rosi directed The Moment of Truth with Mateo in the leading role of Miguel Romero “Miguelín”, a thinly disguised version of himself. The film chronicles the rise and fall of a bullfighter in the midst of Franco’s dictatorship. Unlike some of Rosi’s more “complex” works, there is a deceiving simplicity to the way in which he presents us Miguelín’s story and the film’s ultimate purpose.
On the surface it feels like a version of A Star is Born set in the world of bullfighting, as we see the young man leave behind his hometown in search of a brighter future; only to achieve the kind of blinding success we know can only lead to disaster. Yet looking at it with a more critical perspective reveals layers that deem it as one of Rosi’s most underrated works.
The film is nothing less than a poetic account of life under a fascist regime that forces its people to relinquish all dreams in favor of an imposed nationalism. Essentially we learn that being a bullfighter was a valued profession because Franco left no room for people to aspire of being something that betrayed the notion of Spain. In the movie however, Rosi subverts this notion by revealing that Miguelín has no regard for nationalism and while others cherish his profession, he declares “the only reason I’m a torero (bullfighter) is to make money”. Because he doesn’t adjust to the norm expected during the regime, he has a dark future in store. Wasn’t this precisely what happened to anyone who defied Franco?
The symbols that represent Spain in this film defy the system; from the machinery behind bullfighting — which combines escapism and an almost military devotion — to the Catholic processions that serve as ominous bookends, Rosi reminds us that Spain’s moment of idyll was in the past. The movie is photographed using a documentary like approach, which make us feel like we’re watching a sociological document, but the images are so thought out that we are fooled into thinking there’s nothing more than meets the eye. Metaphorically, Rosi embedded the political repression using a series of optimistic images. A minor subplot in the movie has Miguelín begin an affair with a carefree American socialite (played by Linda Christian) who represents the lack of awareness or interest displayed by foreigners in relation to Spain.
When you take into consideration that Rosi made the film in Spain, in the middle of Franco’s regime, the whole work takes on a different level; one that could very well approach satire. “His very soul is on fire with desire to become [a torero]” says Miguelín’s mentor (Pedro Basauri) unaware that what once was sacred, had become demonic.
The Criterion Collection has done an outstanding job restoring the film, with all the colors coming to life almost too beautifully adding to the film’s bittersweet aftertaste. The film’s inventive cinematography — an amalgam of Fellini’s ’70s movies with thriller-style zooms — will probably never look better. Sadly, special features are scarce; an interview with Rosi being the only featurette. This isn’t to say that the interview isn’t good, in fact it’s absolutely pleasurable, especially because Rosi has a captivating personality that merges the anecdotal with the artistic. Listening to him say how he had the need to “bring the bull to the audience” is a reminder that they truly don’t make them like they used to.
Some might oppose the film because they are against bullfighting, which is unarguably one of the most senseless sports invented; however, the film never pronounces itself strictly against or in favor of it. It just establishes it as the symbol of a culture. It would’ve been interesting to have documentaries or smaller features that dealt with all the references in the movie, as it is, it stands as a lackluster effort from Criterion.