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It’s hard to think of a less suspenseful set than the one writer-director Rodrigo Sorogoyen has taken on for his nail-biting new feature film, The beasts (The beasts), which won the Goya Awards last year in Spain.
In a tiny village lost in the hills of Galicia, a French couple has decided to restart their lives as organic farmers, selling produce at the city market and fixing up old abandoned houses during their free time. His wife, Olga (Marina Foïs), and her husband, Antoine (Denis Ménochet), are a kind and thoughtful middle-aged couple concerned about environmental issues and proficient enough in Spanish to do business with the locals.
Tense and territorial.
Release date: Friday 28th July
Launch: Denis Ménochet, Marina Foïs, Luis Zahera, Diego Anido, Marie Colomb
Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Screenwriters: Isabel Pena, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
2 hours 18 minutes
Yet, from the first minute, this searing drama of rural strife, xenophobia and cultural hostility is filled with an almost unbearable tension, a tension that boils over when Olga and Antoine collide with a pair of native brothers, Xan (Luis Zahera) and Lorenzo (Diego Anido), who live down the street and have a big problem with their new neighbors.
Sorogoyen and co-writer Isabel Peña were inspired by a true story that happened more than a decade ago, involving a Dutch couple who found themselves in the same situation. They changed some details and lowered the age of the protagonists, but the conflict is at the core The beasts it is the same, pitting the new ways against the old and the immigrants against the nationals. It is a grim and unforgiving portrait of Spain reminiscent of two of the director’s early films, May God save us (2016) e The candidate (2018), depicting a nation beset by corruption, traditionalism and chauvinism taken too far.
When the film begins, the war between the French and the brothers has already been going on for some time, sparked by Olga and Antoine’s vote against the installation of income-generating wind turbines in the vicinity of the city. Ironically, they did it to preserve the very land where Xan and Lorenzo grew up, but the latter two, who spend far more time drinking than working, see only easy money coming out of their pockets.
We learn all of this gradually – and initially from Antoine’s perspective as he tries to keep his farm afloat while dealing with constant threats from his neighbors. At first, it’s just some off-putting comments in the small town bar where everyone congregates. But things start to fall apart as the threats become more visceral, with Xan and Lorenzo blocking Antoine’s road on the way home or dropping a pair of car batteries into his water well, ruining the crops that are the French couple’s only livelihood.
These brooding hikes on Antoine and Olga’s property, which overlooks the verdant Galician hills, look like scenes straight out of a western (Sorogoyen mentioned Noon as inspiration in the press notes). But there’s a tone of bitter, violent hatred here that’s more reminiscent of 70s thrillers like Straw dogs OR Liberationwhere backward country louts vent their grievances on innocent newcomers.
The tension is felt every time Antoine leaves the house, where he suddenly becomes a stranger in a hostile land. Ménochet, a bear of an actor whose eyes convey both world-weariness and explosive rage, doesn’t have to do much to ratchet up the suspense at every turn. You just know things aren’t going to work out well on their own, and when the big scene finally happens, what’s shocking is how inevitably hopeless it seems. Sorogoyen stages it less as a duel to the death than as a brutal manifestation of unrestrained Spanish machismo.
The second half of the film switches to Olga’s point of view and, while never marked by the same underlying violence, further explores the chasm that separates the foreigners from the natives, including a pair of gendarmes who are supposed to offer protection. When the couple’s 20-year-old daughter Marie (the excellent Marie Colomb) finally shows up for a visit, she has the same reaction as the viewer: Why would anyone want to stay somewhere where he’s so unwelcome?
Foïs’ character does not provide a convincing answer, stubbornly clinging to the only thing he has, clinging to a dream that long ago turned into a nightmare. The French actress portrays Olga as an honorable woman who was blinded by love before it was too late and who would rather face the consequences than try to move on.
Playing two men who have given up on their dreams long before the film even begins, Zahera (a regular at Sorogoyen) and Anido are thoroughly unsettling, expressing the brothers’ bitterness in a litany of language and passive-aggressive demeanor. In one memorable scene, Lorenzo offers Antoine a ride home when the latter’s truck breaks down, only to step on the accelerator every time Antoine tries to board.
Sorogoyen stages this and other sequences as simply as possible, letting the action unfold without overdoing the sound design, editing or camerawork. Galician locations are so inspiring that cinematographer Alejandro de Pablo often stands back to shoot them in wide shots, capturing the rustic beauty behind which so many dark events unfold. The quaint Spanish town seems like a really nice place to live, if it weren’t for the people.