Genre: Drama

Directed by: Jonathan Cenzual Burley

Starring: Maribel IglesiasMiguel MartínAlfonso Mendiguchía

The life of a shepherd is ideal fodder for cinema, a form that conveys meaning via visual language. In the right hands, that lonely existence can take on a sense of stoic grandeur impossible to relate through words. So it proves in Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s third feature, the first ten minutes playing without dialogue, simply a series of shots giving the essence of Anselmo’s (Miguel Martín) life.

He’s a shepherd on the Spanish plains, living near, but not in, a growing village. With his dog and flock of sheep, he’s content to spend each day walking the land, occasionally stopping to read books borrowed from the library, before heading for a glass of wine in a deserted bar. It’s then back home to bed in his unheated, electricity free shack.

To many it doesn’t sound like much of a life, which is precisely why a couple of greed consumed neighbours (Alfonso Mendiguchía and Juan Luis Sara) assume he’ll be quick to sell when a construction firm comes knocking. Wishing to buy his land to build a housing estate complete with squash courts (to be placed right where his house is), he astonishes first the executives and then his neighbours by continually refusing their advances.The Shepherd cranks up tension, turning slowly into a thriller, but it doesn’t start that way. After the opening barrage of imagery, beautifully framed by Burley himself, he keeps coming back for more, throwing in sunsets and sunrise, the dim lights of a car against the black night and Anselmo walking with his dog along the top of a hill. Anselmo loves the land and the film goes to great lengths to show why someone might crave it. He can’t explain why he wants to be there; he just does, and that’s enough.

A life of gentle flirtation with the library clerk (Maribel Iglesias), peaceful drinking and blissful solitude eventually gives way to escalating aggression. Paradise soon becomes hell as Anselmo is harried and harassed, his windows smashed, his good name accused of unspeakable things. In the lead role, Martín is a slab of granite, unyielding and stubborn before fracturing under the greed of the world.

It’s his existence that seems the most complete; the urban life of TV, telephones and property deals looked on with scorn by Anselmo and Burley. The construction company are one-note villains and women are left to the sidelines. There’s also some clumsy editing, scenes ending suddenly and cutting awkwardly to the next.

These problems occasionally get in the way without ruining a quietly moving meditation on isolation, contentment and rapacious accumulation. It’s impossible not to get involved in Anselmo’s plight, and it’s also impossible not to fall in love with his gorgeously rendered world, starkly rustic though it may be. It makes the burst of tension at the end all the more effective, springing unexpectedly from his bucolic world. The Shepherd is a confident feature unwilling to rush and unwilling to compromise; much like its title character.

★★★★

The Shepherd (El Pastor) is in cinemas 2 June

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