- Cows (1992)Vacas was one of the emblematic titles of the New Basque cinema and also the feature debut of Julio Medem as director. On the one hand, to be supported by the Basque government, the film had to engage with aspects of regional culture. Medem focused on two peasant families through three generations, beginning with the Carlist Wars in the 19th century. Through the qualities and flaws of the characters, a certain image of the Basque national soul emerged, and the region's peculiarities were traced back to past history. But Medem was no social realist along the lines of Montxo Armendáriz, the key Basque filmmaker of the previous decade. His approach was closer to Latin American magic realism, and he preferred a more prominent use of symbol and metaphor to tell his story. Although nothing fantastic really happens, Medem manages to suggest a sense of magic emanating from the forests and mountains, and seamlessly introduces a strong sense of ritual in the lives of his characters isolated, very much like those in Armendáriz's Tasio, in mountain regions away from urban life. Formally, critics noted Medem's bold, often exhilarating, camerawork and loose narrative structure.The film is organized into four long episodes. The first section, "The cowardly aizkolari," is set in the late 19th-century CarlistWars, which largely took place in the Basque forests, and introduces two young soldiers: Carmelo (Kandido Uranga), who will become a heroic warrior and Manuel (Carmelo Gómez), who is afraid of fighting. The latter injures himself so that he can pretend to be dead and thus escape from the battlefield, whereas Carmelo will die on it; this act creates a rivalry between their two families, breeding resentment that will emerge in the practice of a Basque sport that involves dexterity in woodcutting (an aizkolari is a practitioner of this sport). The second episode, "The Axes," takes place in 1905, and centers on the competition, in woodcutting and in women, of the soldiers' descendants, including an illicit relationship between Manuel's son Ignacio and Carmelo's daughter Catalina (Ana Torrent), which will bear illegitimate offspring. Meanwhile, their lives are quietly watched by a neutral herd of cows, whose point of view represents permanence. Two more sections, "The Hidden Hole" and "War in the Forest," bring the story up to the Civil War period. In the former, Catalina and Ignacio escape to America. In the latter, their son Peru returns as a reporter to be a witness to the war, is caught by the rebel army, and is eventually held at the mercy of a descendant of Carmelo.The film was internationally released at the Panorama section of the 1992 Berlin Film Festival, and drew attention to Medem as a new talent to watch. The film won awards at festivals in Tokyo, Turin, and Montreal, and Medem himself won the Goya for best new director that year. Significantly, his ensuing films have been more appreciated abroad than in his own country.
Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. Alberto Mira. 2010.
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