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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Moment of Truth

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
Italy/Spain: Francesco Rosi, 1965 (Criterion Collection)

Bullfighting is a sport concerned with the aesthetics of life and death, with the cruelty of man toward animal, with the deadliness of beast toward Man, and with the bloodlust of the crowd as they watch. As we watch. No movie I‘ve seen has shown it all better, recorded so fully and probed so deeply both the beauty and the sadism of bullfighting, than Francesco Rosi‘s 1965 The Moment of Truth.

Rosi’s film shows us real matadors and real fighting bulls, and a real crowd screaming for the kill. By the end of the film, after Rosi and the audience have followed a young bullfighter, Miguel or “Miguelin,” from provincial poverty all the way to fame in Barcelona and Madrid, to the brink of massacre, and to the moment of truth, of oblivion, that every matador, every bull, every screaming member of the crowd, must feel or face in their own ways — at the end of all that, in the presence of our God and a church, we sense that we‘ve seen not just seen an exotic entertainment, but that we’ve had a life experience. It’s a terrifying film, and a wondrous one, and, as you watch it, it drains your heart and guts, as it stares fiercely into the sun, like Kurosawa.

The star of the film is Miguel Mateo or “Miguelin,” a world-famous matador, then 26, who also had almost improbable movie star good looks. Miguelin here plays a handsome, determined young bullfighter named Miguel Romero, partly patterned on Miguel himself, and partly modeled on the traditional novel/movie “Blood and Sand” myth of the young matador who rises up from the crowd, tastes fame and glory, and faces death once too often. Because Miguel is an actual matador, actually fighting (and killing, and endangered by) the bulls, the fighting scenes have a gripping authenticity matched only by the bullfighting scenes shot by ex-matador Budd Boetticher of bullfighter Carlos Arruza, for Budd’s legendary documentary Arruza.

Miguel’s grace in the arena — that quality bullfighting aficionado Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure” — carries a real double charge of ecstasy and dread here, of sensuality and terror, of obsession and disgust.

We know that Miguel could die in the arena, and that his opponent the bull, almost certainly will die, and this constant proximity of fatality makes the fight scenes both awful and awesome, lamentable and transfixing. I can sympathize with anyone who will not want to see The Moment of Truth precisely because of the cruelty to animals and the danger to humans, and the angst and death which are its subjects. Their number, by the way, includes Moment of Truth’s original cinamatographer Gianni Di Venanzo, who was deeply disturbed by what he had to shoot and was replaced eventually by Pasquale De Santis.

Here is death, before our eyes: its pain, its certainty. The twirl of a red cape, the deception, the charge of the bull (already wounded, already in pain), the setting of the sword, up, up, now the stare, the eye, injury and death only seconds away.

The overall story and drama of The Moment of Truth are familiar but, we suspect, truthful. Young Miguel goes to the city, takes bullfighting lessons from the master, Pedrucho (played by Pedrucho Basauri), attracts the eye of an impresario Don Ernesto (played by Don Ernesto), joins the group of toreros (played by real toreroes) quickly becomes a star in the ring, lives the high life with, among others, real-life actress/playgirl Linda Christian, (playing “Linda”). He fights, whirls, lives a moment more. The “Oles“ pour down. He makes a mistake, but recovers. And then….Inevitably…

Rosi began his career as Luchino Visconti’s assistant director on the great Sicilian neo-realist epic La Terra Trema. (Visconti’s other assistant was Franco Zeffirelli.) The Moment of Truth is, in way, a neo-realist film itself. It suggests somehow a Terra Trema mixed with La Dolce Vita. Rosi, a leftist political cineaste, but also a poet, shows us here real life, real people, a real world. Much of Truth is shot documentary style, but without an omniscient narrator. Rosi, like any great film realist, opens our eyes. What we see hurts.

Most sports movies are a bit sentimental. But some bullfighting movies, like some great boxing films, are among the few that touch the edge of tragedy. Of grace. Savagery. Adoration. Death. “In the afternoon,” as Hemingway said. The bull, death, the sword, only inches away. Ole, Miguelin. Ole, Rosi. They caught something on film others fear and dream about. Saw what some wish never to see. But the blood will always be there, no matter how many times you look away.

Extras: Video interview with Francesco Rosi; booklet with essay by Peter Matthews.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon