In our world dominated by comfort and convenience, a captivating Western, set in the modern day, seems hard to imagine. But last year’s Hell or High Water, set in the wastelands of Texas, showed there is still a place for such machismo-driven narratives.
Now, up-and-coming filmmaker, Jonathan Cenzual Burley, takes us to the patchy dead grasses of rural Spain for a similarly well-measured and atmospheric, part neo-Western. A tale of underhanded greed versus principled resilience.
Burley’s story sees our cowboy, in this case a grizzly and ageing shepherd named Anselmo (played by Miguel Martin), fight against the encroaching forces of corporatism – and the tensions it produces.
Anselmo, a simple man, is content living a stripped back existence in the company of his loyal dog Pillo. This includes a secluded one room home, no car and no electric heating. As the local barman points out, the shepherd still lives in the Stone Age. Certainly, the low hum of the air conditioning underpins the notion that Anselmo, who still warms himself by wood burner on freezing nights, can live without these luxuries.
Early on in the film, Burley pieces together a stirring sequence which grounds Anselmo’s profession, one of the oldest known to man, in a sense of mythology. Burley, director and cinematographer, gets creative with his camera placing it among – and then above – the huddled multitude of sheep before resting in a ditch as a parade of hoofs hurry through.
We eventually pull back to wide shots of the silhouetted shepherd striding across the horizon, evoking images of classic American Westerns. The imagination of Burley’s camera demonstrates that, despite the simplicity of Anselmo’s lifestyle, there is still great beauty and honour in his work. A sentiment Tim Laulik-Walters’ rousing score reinforces quite magnificently.
Yet the stones Anselmo skips across the water at one point in this sequence will later be thrown through his window. This is part of a simmering tension which begins when two men in business suits turn up looking to acquire his property for the development of a residential complex.
Understandably, Anselmo, who was born and raised on this land, is not amused by the thought of his home being turned into a squash court – even for a substantial price. He rejects their offer without a second thought.
But this stance soon comes under pressure from a few locals whose own hefty financial rewards rest on Anselmo’s decision to sell. At the forefront of this opposition are Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchia), a slaughter house owner, and Paco (Juan Luis Sara), a father and husband – both in desperate need of the money.
Burley’s provoking film is littered with subtle touches which quietly – and intelligently – probe the ways money, materialism and avarice can corrupt the human spirit. Luckily, in times like these, Burley gives us a anti-hero, played convincingly by Martin, to fight back against such forces.
The result is a rewarding slow burn narrative which builds to a sizzling climax. Burley, currently working on an English speaking feature, is undoubtedly one to watch. But for the time being, we should all flock down to our locals cinemas to experience The Shepherd.
The Shepherd is out in cinemas on Friday 2nd June
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The Shepherd – 4/5
Dire, Writ & DOP: Jonathan Cenzual Burley
Starring: Miguel Martin, Alfonso Mediguchia, Juan Luis Sara, Maribel Igelsias, Pablo Malaga
Sound: Jorge Rojas
Music: Tim Laulik-Walters