Judge Daryl Loomis never stabbed anything he didn't eat.
A guy like you won't sleep long in a bed like this.
The Moment of Truth is a rare case of a movie whose subject matter and content is more controversial today than it was upon its release. People's feelings about bullfighting just aren't as positive today as they were in 1965; somehow, the idea of taunting and then killing a bull to satisfy a crowd doesn't really seem as attractive as it once did. That makes Francesco Rosi's (Salvatore Giuliano) beautiful but brutal near-documentary a seriously conflicting piece of work.
Facts of the Case
Tired of his life of boredom on the farm, Miguel Mateo (real life matador Miguel Romero) leaves his rural village for Barcelona, hoping to find a better world in the big city. Upon arrival, though, he finds little work and a boarding house with a numbered bed. As dissatisfying as it is, he still has his guts and good looks to work with. One day at a bullfight, he jumps into the ring and takes on the bull as well as the toreros trying to stop him. He lights up the crowd with his antics and so begins life as one of Spain's premiere bullfighters. But even with all his charm and skill, it can't last forever.
By Francesco Rosi's own admission, after he finished his first few films—all realistic portrayals of the rough streets of his native Italy—he had run out of ideas. Taking a nod from Ernest Hemmingway, he travelled to Spain with his long time cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo and no screenplay to make a film about the running of the bulls in Pamplona. This is the footage that opens the film, but the project and the story morphed into something larger. With the inclusion of Miguelin, who had never acted before, Rosi takes us on a rags-to-riches journey through Barcelona and into the bullring with the toreadors who enchant the crowds and the rich men who promote them.
That sounds a lot like the plotting of every second-rate sports movie I've ever seen, and that's the one big issue with The Moment of Truth. The story is ridden with all the clichés that populate these films. Poor kid from the farm? Check. Lure of money? Check. Dirty exploitative promoters? Naturally. Were this the first sporting drama one had seen, it might seem novel and effective. With the baggage of so many of them, both before and after this was released, the plot comes with neither surprise nor drama. The ending is as predictable as they come, as is every step behind it.
Luckily, the soul of the film doesn't lie in its bare plot; it happens within the ring. The problem with this, of course, is the in-ring subject matter is abhorrent to many (myself included), but the drama here is undeniable. Make no mistake, The Moment of Truth is very nearly a documentary and all the bullfighting footage is absolutely real. While that includes the fearless grace of the toreador, it mostly involves the absolute brutality of bullfighting and honest bovine death. The carnage was so severe that Di Venanzo couldn't take it and Rosi had to replace him with the less squeamish Pasquale De Santis to continue the shoot. He gets right in on the action, showing us every sweep of the cape and every swish of the hips, but also every slash on the bull and gallons upon gallons of blood. It's genuinely disturbing and nasty to watch.
Still, Rosi presents a lovely film in spite of all that violence. It's an elegant look at the life of the toreador, beautifully filmed, and well put together. With no acting experience, Miguel Romero is supremely believable as the matador, both inside the ring doing what he knows and in the plot scenes that are completely outside his element. He's convincing in every aspect, including the brief love scene where he looks more believable than most leading actors out there. Rosi's direction is elegant and efficient, getting the story out with a lot of suspense and drama, filled with cliches though it may be. That fact diminishes the entire thing, as there really are much better executions of this story, but the overall effect is really strong, gruesome as it may be.
Criterion presents the gory details of The Moment of Truth in vivid detail with this bare bones but technically brilliant Blu-ray release. The 2.35:1/1080p transfer is absolutely fantastic. All the colors are full and bright, but the reds are the most impressive. They are very, very red, from the softer hues of the toreador's muleta to the deep, dark tones of the bull's blood, which become sickening from the frequency and sheer quantity of it. The detail is phenomenal, as well. This is especially clear in the scene when Miguelin returns to his hometown for a bullfight. As he travels around, the farmers work with the grain, tossing it in the air. You can see every single piece of it floating in the air and, behind it, all the detail is clear to the very back of the frame, even through the thick, accurate grain structure. This is a lovely transfer and the restoration work is impeccable. The sound is not as striking as the image, but it's still quite good. The lossless PCM mono mix is noise-free, with strong music and perfectly clear dialog. The only extras are an archival interview with the director and a very good essay included in the standard Criterion booklet by critic Peter Matthews. I would have loved more in the extras, but the video and audio are good enough to make up for it.
I can't blame somebody for not wanting to see The Moment of Truth based on a lack of tolerance for the terrible violence on display. Truthfully, it can be pretty hard to watch, but it's a very well made piece of cinema. The performances are great given the lack of experience amongst the performers and Rosi builds a huge level of tension through the drama and brutality of the bullfighting ring. Tough as it is sometimes, this is a film that deserves to be seen.
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