Blu-ray Review: Francesco Rosi’s ‘The Moment of Truth’ Succumbs to Gruesomeness

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CHICAGO – The remarkable photography in Francesco Rosi’s 1965 bullfighting drama is, alas, its sole redeeming feature. Nearly everything that unfolds in front of Rosi’s lens is flat-out appalling and borderline unwatchable. Critics have hailed the picture for its artful depiction of the action, but all I see is vicious animal cruelty cloaked in crowd-pleasing machismo.

Rosi is, of course, a celebrated Italian filmmaker who’s no stranger to controversy, and his gambles have often paid off tremendously in films such as 1962’s “Salvatore Giuliano” and 1972’s Palme d’Or-winner, “The Mattei Affair.” I don’t believe Rosi was attempting to glorify bullfighting in “Truth,” but aside from its appropriately cautionary finale, the film devolves into a repellent series of ritual slaughters that are as numbing as they are repellant. Blu-ray Rating: 2.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 2.0/5.0

The instantly familiar story centers on a bored farm boy (played by Miguel Romero ‘Miguelín’) with aspirations to break out of his mundane existence. It’s clear that the young man is meant to be as much of a tragic casualty as the animals that he’s eventually assigned to kill, but his thick-headed naïveté got on my nerves. He expects to get a job simply by traveling to the city and asking for one. Since ‘Miguelín’ is, in actuality, a renowned matador, there’s little suspense as to whether the mopey protagonist will climb the rickety ladder of fame. There’s no attempt to depict ‘Miguelín’’s evolution as a matador and little exploration of his technique. He’s simply brilliant right off the bat, wowing his Burgess Meredith-like trainer and winning the flirtatious attention of beauties like Hollywood actress Linda Christian (in a sly cameo as herself). Piero Picconi’s stirring yet intrusive score amplifies the drama at every turn as ‘Miguelín’ shifts from righteous indignation to privileged disillusionment. His work in the arena is admittedly impressive as he slowly circles the creature while rubbing its head, predicting its movements and somehow managing to make it stand perfectly still as he goes in for the kill. Yet there’s hardly any indication of what ‘Miguelín’ really thinks about the job, or anything else. Money appears to be the sole motivator. And what bloody money it is.

The Moment of Truth was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 24, 2012.
The Moment of Truth was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 24, 2012.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

The great achievement of the picture is the meticulous detail captured onscreen during each fight. We see human bodies gored and trampled by bulls, as well as a blindfolded horse that fares no better. The most disturbing footage by far are the cackling close-ups of the all-ages audience cheering boisterously as blood pours out of a bull’s nostrils and mouth before collapsing. “That scoundrel!” one woman hisses at a bull, as if she’s watching a fair fight. ‘Miguelín’’s trainer mumbles briefly about the sacredness of the animal and the profundity of the bullfighting ritual, which frankly sounds to me like a bunch of bull. The spectacle of taunting and torture that occurs at these events is no less monstrous than the atrocities that took place in the Roman Colosseum. There’s little to gain from a viewing of this film except sheer hatred for the so-called art form. No wonder cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo became so disgusted with the footage that he bailed on the project to shoot Fellini’s “Juliet of the Springs” instead. Seriously, who could blame the guy?
“The Moment of Truth” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by a new English subtitle translation and includes a rapturous essay by critic Peter Matthews in which he praises the Italian dub of the Spanish actors for being “metaphorically apt.” The sole special feature on the disc is a 14-minute interview with Rosi conducted by Criterion in 2004. He reveals that the script was being written during production, which may have been a result of his original intention to make a documentary about the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona.

Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 nonfiction book, “Death in the Afternoon,” Rosi set out to make a picture that got the audience as close to the action as possible, while exploring the relationship between the bull and the matador through their movement. He cast Mateo because of his innovative use of “tremendismo” in the ring and the naïveté he could project through his boyish expressions. Rosi was dead set against using a double for any of the fight sequences, and the shot where Mateo is trampled by a bull was entirely real and unplanned. Much of the footage was shot handheld with a 300 mm lens often used for soccer games. Above all, the director says that he wanted the audience to discover the beauty within the tragedy of a bullfight. Sorry Rosi, I just don’t see it.

‘The Moment of Truth’ is released by The Criterion Collection and stars Miguel Mateo, José Gómez Sevillano, Pedro Basauri and Linda Christian. It was written by Pedro Beltrán, Ricardo Muñoz Suay, Pere Portabella and Francesco Rosi and directed by Francesco Rosi. It was released on Jan. 24, 2012. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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