With just five features to his credit, Julio Medem has quickly confirmed his position as one of Europe’s most idiosyncratic talents. That talent is already on ample display in this striking first feature, which is an imaginatively orchestrated tale of a cross-generational feud between the Irigibel and Mendiluz families. It begins during the Carlist wars of 1875, with an aizkolari (a traditional wood-cutting sport) contest between the families which Manuel Irigebel (Carmelo Gomez) wins. Thirty years later we see him as an old man, mentally scarred and painting pictures of cows. The two families become united through the love affair between Manuel’s son and one of the Mendiluz daughters. The couple produce a son (again played by Gomez) who becomes trapped in the fantasy world of cows. The use of cows in the film underlies the basic futility of the individual’s desires and actions. These inscrutable beasts turn up at key moments, their passive gaze serving as a timeless reminder of how those desires and actions are only important within a very small frame of time and affect very few people. Their non-judgmental stare is, according to Medem, ‘meant to belittle the violence in the film, to question its justifiability.’ The film’s other primary conceit is the use of male actors in multiple roles, which underlines the circularity of events. As with all of Medem’s subsequent films, the use of colour is an important factor, the lush green of the forest surrounding both houses providing a contrast with the increasingly barren relationship between the families.
1992. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby stereo. 96 mins.