Creating an effect of pity and terror unique in Francesco Rosi’s cinema, The Moment of Truth ought by rights to be counted among his finest achievements. On its original release in 1965, Pauline Kael acclaimed “the beauty of rage, masterfully rendered in art,” the anonymous reviewer for Time magazine almost identically celebrating a work of “brutal and paralyzing beauty.” But since then, the film has largely fallen off the critical map, now considered at best a minor entry in the Rosi canon, at worst a betrayal of the perfect analytical clarity defining its immediate predecessors, Salvatore Giuliano (1961) and Hands over the City (1963). How might one explain the historical neglect of so transcendently powerful, indeed ruthless, a work?
Most obviously, even critics are not gifted with clairvoyance, and The Moment of Truth has been out of wide circulation for decades. If the movie has received a dribble of attention for all that, it was too often in the form of generalizing one-paragraph dismissals—many of which, you suspect, were based on conjecture, hearsay, or the vaguest memory. In his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson perfunctorily notes that Rosi’s bullfighting opus “could not escape cliché.” Mira Liehm, in her study of postwar Italian cinema, Passion and Defiance, reaches the same hasty verdict: belying its title, The Moment of Truth lacks “poetic authenticity.” For both, the director’s fatal mistake was to abandon the indigenous geography that nourished his art and search out more exotic climes; a rank outsider, he cannot expose the harsh social realities of Barcelona and Madrid with anything near the precision applied formerly in Naples or Sicily—and so resorts to the easy pictorialism of handsome matadors facing annihilation in the bullring. We have plainly traveled a long distance from Kael’s ecstatic response to this withering contemporary view of the film as essentially a tourist lark. In the interim, we have doubtless grown more suspicious of those who invade alien cultures and presume to speak in their name. Granting the remedial justice of this logic, it carries some peculiar consequences for filmmakers. By such an anti-imperialist standard, Jean Renoir was not entitled to the sinuously mysterious imagery he brought home from India for The River (1951), nor Sergei Eisenstein to his fantasia of monumental peasants and grinning skulls in the aborted Qué viva México! (1931). One may answer that stylizing and objectifying are simply what artists do and how they stake out a personal vision. In some measure, beauty is always undeniably an imposition—though it so happens that The Moment of Truth offers a sharp internal critique of its own aestheticizing processes.
The sensational lyricism of the movie was greatly born of necessity. While scooping up the Golden Lion at Venice, Hands over the City did not exactly light a fire under the Italian box office. Since auteurs must live too, Rosi’s next idea was to assemble a coproduction, which enabled dual financing and guaranteed at least two domestic markets. For added value, he would ditch the austere, sun-bleached monochrome of his previous work and exploit the creative resources of Technicolor. The initial plan was for a documentary on the San Fermín Festival in Pamplona—with its weeklong series of bull runs through the streets of the old town—but the concept soon crystallized into that neorealist disciplining of fictional event by factual observation already established as Rosi’s métier. In this, he may have recalled his time as assistant director on Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1948), which similarly evolved from modest actuality to epic invention. Though Lucky Luciano (1973) provides stiff competition, The Moment of Truth is surely Rosi’s most Viscontiesque film, bringing sumptuous operatic qualities even to the mayhem in the arena and an irresistible elegiac poignancy to the scenes in the Andalusian countryside. Yet the documentary impulse survives in the nimble handheld cinematography (chiefly by Pasquale De Santis, who took over when the carnage proved too much for Rosi stalwart Gianni Di Venanzo) and, more obliquely, in the recurrence of the eternal Southern Question. From his debut feature, La sfida (1958), to Salvatore Giuliano, The Mattei Affair (1972), Illustrious Corpses (1976), and Neapolitan Diary (1992), virtually all of Rosi’s films scratch at the same intransigent problem: Why should the lower peninsula continue as a backwater of cultural and economic stagnation, the quasi-feudal other to the rest of Italy, overtaken by modernizing currents after the Second World War? By testing out this parochial theme in a foreign setting, Rosi hoped to reveal its universal dimensions.
Under Ferdinand II and many successive kings, Spain possessed the southern Italian territories for upwards of three centuries. Rosi, then, was not entirely wide of the mark to perceive shared historical ground. Though a matter of sheer commercial expediency, the animated Italian voices that issue from Spanish mouths in The Moment of Truth are metaphorically apt, suggesting at once national proximity and difference. As in Italy, the industrial boom of the north of Spain hardly penetrated the rustic south, impelling thousands of unskilled manual laborers to try their luck in the big cities. This is the demographic foundation for Rosi’s tale. With nothing to trade on but youth, muscle, and good looks, enterprising yokel Miguel Romero arrives in Barcelona, his first stop a cheap rooming house where he is assigned a numbered cot. That detail alone registers the untold masses who have followed the same statistical trajectory before him and quickly gone down in defeat. Yet the discreetly flirtatious concierge predicts that “a guy like you won’t sleep long in a bed like this,” and so it transpires. In that our fetching hero beats the odds (for a while at least), the neorealist imperative of typicality yields to a more romantic inspiration. The systemic networks of corruption and greed that Rosi unforgettably anatomizes in the Italian context are here exchanged for routine small-fry promoters and middlemen, each skimming cream off the rising torero’s paycheck. But if the filmmaker cannot grasp the nuances of power in the Spanish situation, cultural myopia holds its distinct advantages. Frustrated at the level of muckraking reportage, The Moment of Truth becomes something inestimably deeper: a timeless archetype of lost innocence that ends with primordial blood sacrifice.
The opening footage sets the atavistic tone. Flanked by sinister columns of blue- and black-hooded figures straight out of the Inquisition, a mammoth, gold-encrusted float bearing the Madonna emerges from a cathedral to join the cheering throng in the street. Portending cruelties ahead, the imposing edifice is upraised by a hidden workforce of young zealots whose feet shuffle forward in slow, agonizing inches under its weight. They might be Egyptian slaves hauling stone blocks for the pyramids—and Rosi the Marxist philosopher thereby advises us how the glittering ornaments of civilization are also inescapably documents of barbarism. The ideological function of religion to compensate for misery with soul-stirring pageantry could not be more visually graphic. In a bold stroke, Rosi cuts from the white sneakers of the effigy-supporting peons to the army boots marching alongside them—a reminder that for all the medieval atmosphere, we are still in Franco’s Spain. If church and state collude in the people’s oppression, the corrida de toros supplies the final vertex of the political triangle. Rosi now segues to a village bull run, the cathartic excitement of which is rendered tangible in breathless whip pans. Miguel is casually picked out from the crowd as one of the disenfranchised hundreds who assert their machismo by taunting the beast. At the family farm, he contemplates his father tracing perpetual loops in a horse-drawn tiller and getting nowhere. Rosi the geometer symbolizes the character’s moral vicissitudes with patterns of circles and squares. Seen from a window, the vast agrarian horizon contracts to an imprisoning box. While the city beckons with its infinite promise, Miguel’s dreams of liberation will be equally stymied there—first in the thrall of backbreaking dead-end jobs, and later when parasitic deal makers suck his newfound celebrity dry. At each stage, architecture narrows the vista and entraps him in compositional frames within frames. The bullring itself would seem to afford boundless latitude for physical grace, honor, and endurance, yet proves another vicious circle—indenturing Miguel to a punishing treadmill of regional engagements, and ultimately shrinking to the pinpoint of just him, the enraged creature, and sudden death in the afternoon.
With Miguel’s bitter disillusionment, the once abhorred country ironically returns as pastoral. Visiting the homestead, he surveys the land through fresh eyes, and Rosi accordingly deploys the screen to its full panoramic extent. A magnificent sequence of long shots sublimates the annual harvest into a nostalgic, painterly idyll, with tiny dots of farmhands sweeping grain in a honeyed dust. But our status-seeking protagonist has recently acquired a red-leather-upholstered convertible, and so must hie back to the dissipated metropolis by way of completing his doom. Rosi and Spanish coscreenwriters Pere Portabella (credited here as Pedro), Ricardo Muñoz Suay, and Pedro Beltrán do little to conceal the synthetic elements in their rags-to-riches fable. Its most reputable antecedent is Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), in which Renato Salvatori’s feral Simone climbs out of rural indigence via prizefighting, with tragic consequences. Yet the film also rises from the ashes of classical Hollywood—specifically, the numerous adaptations of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1909 potboiler Blood and Sand. In the 1922 Fred Niblo and 1941 Rouben Mamoulian versions, aspiring toreador Juan leaves bucolic sweetheart Carmen for professional triumphs in Madrid. His strength depleted by high living and adulterous encounters with the man-eating Doña Sol, he is mortally wounded in the corrida. Rosi consciously paraphrases this story arc, while attenuating its excesses. The steadfast maiden is reduced to an itinerant child laborer who offers soul-weary Miguel a drink of water amid the hayricks. Almost as vestigially, the femme fatale becomes jaded demimondaine Linda (a self-referential cameo by international starlet Linda Christian), seducing him with the imperishable line “You’re not afraid of the bull. Now, are you afraid of me?” Rosi indulges the delirious artifice of melodrama because he recognizes its moment of truth. The rigged coincidences that propel the lead to his appointment with fate have their correlative in the all-determining social structures of the neorealist imagination. But since negotiating a military junta requires expert tightrope walking, the appeal to genre is no less strategic. Outwardly faithful to the edicts of the old Production Code regime, studio dissidents like Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk would sap its pieties through an ambiguous, double-jointed mise-en-scène. Rosi belongs to this stealthy tradition—reconfiguring the clichés that David Thomson and others lament into a subversive myth of Francoist Spain.
With Rudolph Valentino and then Tyrone Power swelling out their spangled costumes, Blood and Sand was a reliable property for the exhibition of male eye candy. Playing an echo-chamber facsimile of himself, bona fide torero Miguel “Miguelín” Mateo does not disappoint, though his pulchritude is admired incidentally. Rosi, the objective witness, keeps aloof from the innate homoeroticism of the milieu that Pedro Almodóvar satirizes in his gleefully prurient Matador (1986). Still, the air hangs heavy with testosterone in those repeated scenes where grizzled men in back rooms plot Miguel’s future and warn him against the enervating temptations of women. While visionaries must be conceded their blind spots, you can’t help remarking how Rosi’s cinema, dedicated to challenging politico-patriarchal institutions, itself refuses entanglement with the feminine—the only conspicuous exceptions being the whimsical 1967 Sophia Loren vehicle More than a Miracle and (his second crack at the bullring) a lavish 1984 rendition of Bizet’s Carmen. But if Rosi chastely retreats from the distaff, he punctures the tumescent illusions of masculine sovereignty. As Miguelín executes his own cape-flourishing, death-defying stunts, we are spared the usual embarrassment of pampered actors mimicking dauntless courage in front of egregious rear projection whenever the maddened animal charges. The private fear intermittently gripping his face seems just as vérité, and through so dizzying a confusion of the real with the performative, Rosi illuminates that curious machinery of stardom in which existential kill-or-be-killed bravado meets the audience’s need for ritual purgation.
During each contest, there are periodic cutaways to the aficionados: tough customers not easily impressed and reacting to failures in prowess or technique with voluble disdain. Purely wishing to retire on his nest egg, Miguel sizes up bullfighting as a business of profitably working the crowd. A natural showman, he first grabs center stage by jumping into the ring illegally, then seizes his main chance when a nervous rival bolts and he goes on in his place—just like Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street (1933). The movie does occasionally resemble a musical, with suave dance maneuvers by kaleidoscopically clad matadors halting the narrative at regular intervals. We are not denied the potent glamour of the spectacle and see how color, light, and hovering death theatrically transport its fans to some perverse zone of utopian fulfillment. Yet Rosi disavows the Boy’s Own mysticism of that earlier tourist in hell Ernest Hemingway, for whom the chivalric ideal of the art was “killing cleanly” with “spiritual enjoyment.” There is scant edification to be gained from watching young men being tossed like so many rag dolls, ceremonial horses getting gored in the flanks, or the bulls being continually impaled by festive harpoons before having their spinal cords severed. Rosi catalogs the atrocities with a clinical detachment that merely intensifies their horror. Another memorial to senseless butchery is inevitably called to mind—Picasso’s Guernica, where the twisted wreckage of bodies indicts a whole society turned into an abattoir. Near the end of his brief tether, Miguel awakes in a cold sweat from a nightmare that serves as the film’s gruesome epiphany. Haunches dripping with blood, the bull knocks him over, and upside down, he confronts his nemesis eyeball to eyeball. What can he make out in the beast’s unflinching gaze? Perhaps the realization that both are lumps of dead meat for a world that has consumed its savage entertainment and now ruthlessly discards them.
Peter Matthews is a senior lecturer in film and television at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. He is also a regular contributor to Sight & Sound.