Watching ‘The Moment of Truth’

Photo by Stephane Yaich on Unsplash

I’m no aficionado, far from it, but I’ve seen enough bullfights to appreciate the corrida as a spectacle, one that is both atavistically satisfying and morallIy reprehensible. In other words, there’s a lot of blood

I’ve also learned the bullfight is a performance in which the only power that is not simulated lies with the bull, a colossally sized beast who barrels into the arena intent on charging at and goring anything that moves. To see such a bull for the first time is to be appreciative — first of the barriers that stand between you and a thousand pounds of selectively bred muscles and rage, and second of the skill and bravery of the toreros who willingly risk their lives for the entertainment of the crowd.

I had never seen The Moment of Truth until I came across it in the Criterion collection. For me Francesco Rosi is Salvatore Giuliano and Hands over the City, shot in black and white, both stories about southern Italy. So I didn’t know what to expect of this color production, other than a typical rags to riches tale, à la Blood and Sand, of an innocent lad from the countryside for whom bullfighting offers a way out of poverty, who succeeds in finding fame, but is then corrupted, usually by an upper-class woman, and who after losing focus is at last killed in the bullring.

And this is, in fact, The Moment of Truth.

But Rosi was a political film maker, and the narrative paucity of this film is less a weakness than an alibi. What The Moment of Truth dares to examine, under its superficial story line, is the relationship between ruthless exploitation — various forms of enslavement really — and power as exercised by the state and religion in Franco’s Spain.

This project is evident in the opening scenes. The Moment of Truth was initially a documentary of the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona. It unfolds in lyrical style with a religious procession, well-stocked with men under hoods and robes and with soldiers marching under Wehrmacht style helmets. But Rosi catches glances: a boy steals a terrified look at the hooded figures next to him. A man on break from his labor under a giant float of the Madonna peers up at a policeman, his volatile joy tempered by caution.

It’s almost impossible to watch this first part of the film and not think fascism, not understand that intense cultural belongingness comes at a price, likely its motivation: that this is the way things are, that love and brotherhood are dependent on everyone knowing their place, and that power is absolute and elsewhere.

Certainly it’s not in the bullring, apart from its symbolic staging and its tragically short-term appearance in the guise of a bull. The corrida is a gladiatorial contest that takes place under a blazing afternoon sun, in which performance is sacrifice. With infinite grace, the matador places himself in the path of destruction and narrowly defeats death because in the absence of real power, in the absence of a meaningful way to participate, what else is a poor guy to do? Daredevilry is grounded in powerlessness. The gestures that require great boldness are fueled by impotence. And Caesar, as always, has a front-row seat.

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