The Hunt

10/24/2010

Spain / 1966 / Spanish

Directed by Carlos Saura

With Ismail Merlo, Alfredo Mayo, José María Prada

Still from 'The Hunt'Four men drive through the midday heat into the foothills of the Pyrenees, looking forward to a day spent getting away from the stress of work, and shooting a few rabbits. Two of them, José and Luis, are business partners, and they are meeting up with Paco, a friend from a long time back, with whom they fought on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Accompanying the group is Paco’s brother-in-law, a fresh-faced young man named Enrique. In their brusque reintroductions at a roadside diner we begin to sense that, in contrast to Paco, who has been steadily and shrewdly building his own fortune, the other two men have experienced traumatic professional and personal failures. However they lack the energy or the need to hide the overflow of regret that marks this minor reunion as they speed towards their hunting ground – hills where, they fondly reminisce, loyalist soldiers once fled from their crackling rifles.

They are headed to an area of land that José owns, which is vast, open, and theirs to use. But it is a blighted, horrible region, where little grows, and the rabbits are afflicted with a man-made illness meant to deplete their numbers. And so arrive the businessmen from distant civilization, here to further exterminate the bare fauna that can live here, and stew their diseased quarry. Surprisingly there is a man, named Juan, who inhabits the land along with his family. He works for José, limping around the property and keeping a small farm while barely subsisting. It becomes apparent that José is steeped in dire financial woes, and that his motive for bringing Paco along on this excursion is to appeal to him for help. He has made a series of bad business decisions, one of them possibly being working with Luis, a sullen and bespectacled drunk who says more by apocalyptic quotations from science fiction novels than revealing things about his personality.

Harried and fallible, José often peers jealously in the direction of Paco, a successful man whose outward look of comfort and sophistication is meant as a testament to his unwavering confidence. Nothing seems to bother him, he even sunbathes in the horrible sun that causes the others to sweat and see double. José brings up a time in the past in which he saved Paco, but it means little to the other man. To Paco, José is a rung on the ladder that he has long since passed over, no longer to be considered with any seriousness. Meanwhile Enrique, ignorant of all this intrigue, watches Nina, Juan’s teenage daughter, in a way that seems both predatory and chaste. She meets him with open naivety, obviously unaccustomed to seeing many men besides her father.

In the desolate, scrub-covered setting, time stands still, the sun hanging immediately above as if loth to finish its voyage, holding the characters in this pale wasteland like ants too small to escape being burnt, even if they could know what was happening to them. The balding, middle aged men sit around after a fitful round of shooting, laden with so many accoutrements that they could be on a Bunuel picnic, while a radio plays yé-yé tunes (including one in which the singer repeats “loca juventud!” – “crazy youth”). They have brought wine and cognac to the “land without bread” and it becomes quite a surreal scene, developing without requiring much to happen. Luis drinks continuously, his water bottle containing something that certainly isn’t water, and makes everyone else nervous by shooting at the surrounding scenery.

Still from 'The Hunt'Luis and Enrique drive to a walled, medieval village to buy bread, and watch with a crowd of locals as a hanging cow is disemboweled. The scene (along with one inside the rude farmhouse where Juan lives) is a reminder that in Spain, one is never far from the primitive, the vestiges peering through the curtains of time, incomprehensibly frozen in place. The two of them bring back a mannequin to use for target practice, and Enrique winds up dancing with it and Nina while the flow of tinny pop songs continues to splutter forth from the radio. Unlike the older adults, they are having oblivious fun, apart from the cares of the world. “I feel as though I have been here in a dream,” Enrique thinks to himself. A past life, perhaps, but most certainly one spent with the Nationalists.

After having talked to Luis, Enrique begins to look questioningly at the motivations of his brother-in-law, who married into the family and acquired their business. He feels as though he knows less, not more, about the suave but inscrutable Paco, who speaks assuredly about the two of them becoming partners. José, who does not seem as though he could suffer a rebuke from Paco, treats the man as his only hope. He talks about Arturo, the missing fourth friend who committed suicide years ago, recalling him as though he knows he is swiftly heading down the same road himself. The others don’t say much about their deceased colleague, and Enrique is unsuccessful in finding out more from them.

The rabbits that the men are hunting are an appropriate analogy to the scattered loyalists who once hid in caves and were slaughtered in that very valley, by these very men. As the hunters’ lucidity wanes in the merciless sun, the animals, both helpless and unpredictable, act as the hair-trigger catalysts for sudden rushes of activity that break the disconnected contemplation. José’s dog runs up and down the hills and Juan appears in the crosshairs of Enrique’s World War II Luger, bringing his pet ferrets to the rabbit tunnels to fulfill their namesake, thus further complicating the circus of moving things that confuse the eye.

In the course of the characters’ spare and tense conversations the idea comes up a few times that hunting is cruel, but that of course depends upon one’s worldview; only an attitude may be cruel, as philosophy can be easily sloughed off and actions boiled down until there is no intent but the cold, irreducible intent of the natural order. Correspondingly, as the hunt is done in sport, without a note of cruelty, then it is passable for the men’s consciences, much like the way they joyfully and dutifully committed murder during the war. Director Saura, at times subtly and at others quite overtly, places loose bricks in the façade of masculinity and refinement that they hold out to separate themselves from nature and the landbound peasants, revealing the savagery that underlies it all and that they rely so much on keeping contained.

Still from 'The Hunt'When the men’s composure begins to fall to pieces, one cannot help but think that this is the returning of past misdeeds – a notion that, rather than being used as here as the basis for a horror scenario, instead provides a pointed political comment. After a certain point Saura has wound the situation so tightly that, while we certainly expect violence to erupt – all the alcohol, the nervous trigger fingers, the dark pasts – we also expect some sort of clever outlet for the characters’ labyrinthine, half understood associations. Independently of the passage of time, of character development, and of other occurrences that would distinguish ridges on the canvas of the plot, Saura manages to advance the story with people’s emotions piercing a scene like beams of hot light through the clapboards of a barn. The transformations that take place are somewhat torturous, Saura utilizing them to state, in effect, that these are the types of people born of war and autocracy, unsavory in similar ways and kind of holding power beneath Franco’s flag. But there is, in his depiction, a hopefulness that they cannot avoid forever atrocities to which they have been party, and that they will, somehow, destroy one another.

The film resulting of all this is pared down and eerily concise, in spite of its languid close-ups on people and things, and voice-overs from the characters’ thoughts that are alternately poetic (Enrique’s) and panicked (José’s) – which, while hastening the tension, are unnecessary. Altogether more effective is his use of often unsatisfactory revelations, which, as in a muted and disconcertingly incomplete rendering of the psychodrama paradigm, are basic and sketchy, rarely forming a coherent whole. At once brutish and beguilingly evasive, The Hunt attempts to strike at the core of modern humanity, and does so without accentuating the process of how it arrived at that point. And what does it find there that wasn’t already inherent in a day spent shooting game?

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