Thursday 20 May 2010
Vacas (Cows) by Julio Medem (Review)
Long before he became obsessed with penises and the sizes of them in 'Lucía y el Sexo' (Sex and Lucia), Basque director Julio Medem made three ground-breaking movies: 'Vacas' ('Cows'), 'La Ardilla Roja' ('The Red Squirrel') and 'Tierra' ('Earth'). Of this triumvirate 'Vacas' (Medem's opera prima) is probably the more meticulous one, traipsing as it does through the history and culture of the Basque Country.
The movie centres on the idea of how an act of cowardice can affect three generations of two families and fuel a rivalry that at times becomes bloody. Against the backdrop of the 1870s civil war that engulfed this part of Spain, Sergeant Carmelo Mendiluce tries to help fellow villager and army novice Manuel Irigibel when the latter joins the rebel forces. Manuel is filled with terror of the conflict and the fighting and it is this fear that causes Carmelo's death. To pretend that he, too, has been killed, Manuel covers himself with Carmelo's blood and returns to the village, kicking off a feud between the Irigibel and Mendiluce families. The situation is further complicated when many years after, a Romeo-and-Juliet scenario develops between two members of the warring clans.
'Vacas' is a powerful and in-depth study of Basque traditions. Decades after Manuel's coward act we see both families challenging each other over one of the region's rural sports: Aizkora proba (wood chopping). This is a competition where a wood cutter has to chop his way through a number of logs as quickly as possible whilst standing on the trunk. The eponymous bovines represent the agrarian nature of this fiercely patriotic corner of Spain. Medem uses also the cows as time machines to transport the viewer through the different generations (there are some beautiful moments where the camera remains fixed on a cow's gaze and slowly and, barely noticeable to the viewer, it takes him/her through the cow's eye, bringing them out to a different scene).
Special mention should be made of both sound and photography. The former is heightened by the director's decision to allow nature's very own voice to provide the movie's soundtrack. Thus, we are constantly exposed to the soft, crunching melody of dry leaves, the shrill of the scythe tied to a scarecrow as it swings around (it's meant to keep wild boar away) and the roar of the feral wind. The photography captures magnificently both the vastness of the Basque landscape with its lush valleys and hills and the claustrophobia of the undergrowth (plenty of close-ups and hand-held camera work).
The performances are very good. This was the movie that turned Emma Suárez into Julio Medem's muse (she also acted in 'La Ardilla Roja' and 'Tierra'), placing her into a similar relationship to that between the also Spanish actress Carmen Maura and the award-winning director Pedro Almodóvar.
'Vacas' is above all a surreal tale about two families that are reluctant to lay the ghost of their troublesome past and the heavy price they pay for it. As debut features go, it is a fine one, indeed. It makes me even forgive Medem for his later obsession with male genitalia.
Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 23rd May at 10am (GMT)