Anselmo is a solitary Spanish shepherd, but he is not lonely. He has his faithful dog Pillo. He has his routine: tending to the sheep, trips to the library, nightly drink at the bar. Born in the shack in which he lives and, by and large, content with his lot. The embodiment of the dignity of labour. The sort of good man who would not engage you in frivolous chatter at the bar but you are glad he is there nonetheless. Anselmo looks like a stocky, weathered Dustin Hoffman, and he shares his inherent likeability. Jonathan Cenzual Burley understands we must respect the shepherd for the film to have the intended impact.
A construction company swans into the crumbling town with promises of a major urbanisation development. Anselmo’s neighbours leap at the chance. He does not. Not even when the developers tell him they need his farm for the squash courts. It is his farm. They can build round him if they like. He has lit the fuse on a chain of events that begin with the gentle cajoling of ‘the village idiot’ and descends into bullying, intimidation and ultimately violence. Burley does sterling work in allowing the story to unfold naturally at its own pace. The escalation of events never feels forced and the neighbours campaign to change Anselmo’s mind by following logical steps. They do not go from asking nicely to threatening to break his legs after five minutes. Despite their attempts to alienate and isolate Anselmo he is not totally alone. His relationship with the librarian is genuinely warm with a sharp sense of humour. Who knew Spanish shepherds have the same stereotype as the Welsh of over affection for their sheep? The barman understands him as well: “If it they wanted my bar I’d tell them to fuck off”.
“we must respect the shepherd for the film to have the intended impact”
At its heart this is a film about freedom and economic crisis. Stories such as this are conceivable across Southern Europe. When the true motivations of the neighbours are revealed they are less in control than it seems. Bad mortgages, debts accrued in the good times, trying to make the most of the economic bubble. They are not victims per se. It was after all their own greed that led them to make their choices. Anselmo is self-sufficient, he is free. He did not partake in the boom and did not cause the bust. Despite this he finds himself in a situation where the reality of the economic situation is bearing down on him, crushing him. Arguably, the shadowy construction company is the main villain of the piece, their greed drives them to see individuals as disposable.
When the denouement comes, the neighbours feel they have no choice but to behave how they do. Anselmo does. He makes the wrong choice. As morally righteous as it may be, it will cost him everything, but he did it as a free man. An act of defiance that is understandable but leaves the audience with a nauseating feeling of sadness. This is a reflexive film giving voice to an anger many will fill towards the economic system. It does nothing special, but it does it well. A morality play for the EU financial crisis.
Image: Jonathan Cenzual Burley