Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘As Bestas’ is a Gripping Tale of Xenophobia and Gentrification

Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen

Writer: Isabel Peña and Rodrigo Sorogoyen

Stars: Marina Foïs, Denis Ménochet, Luis Zahera

Synopsis: A middle-aged French couple moves to a local village, seeking closeness with nature where their presence inflames two locals to the point of outright hostility and shocking violence.

The multi-Goya Award-winning feature by Madrid filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen, As Bestas (The Beasts), is a gripping and unnerving portrayal of European gentrification and xenophobia with plenty of tension-filled moments, heartbreaking discussions, and powerful performances all around. 

As the world slowly changes, a rising wave of racism and xenophobia appears in Western civilization (and culture). Hatred slowly deteriorates the minds of those with loathing in their hearts, rotting their souls to the point of no return. In the last couple of years, we have seen more movies discussing these topics and supremacist ideologies. It almost feels like a resurgence; many filmmakers were inspired by today’s world to create urgent stories and narratives about them, like Cristian Mungiu with his brilliant picture R.M.N or Beth de Araujo’s surprising yet faulty Soft & Quiet. Even if the film depicting these topics doesn’t work in their entirety, there’s a piercing factor due to the reality we are living in. You can add another movie to that list with Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s As Bestas (The Beasts). This movie has the Madrid filmmaker implementing his usual tension-filled directorial techniques with a story about the fissures between locals and immigrants in the region of Galicia, all leading up to a fascinating and gripping picture – deserving of its Goya Award for Best Film earlier this year and has Sorogoyen at his finest. 

As Bestas (The Beasts) opens with slow-motion footage of two different beasts – wild horses roaming around the meadows and humans holding one of them down – at Galicia’s Rapa das Bestas festival. This “celebration” involves cutting the manes of wild horses that live freely in the mountains in a semi-feral state. Sheer intensity oozes out of the screen due to the brutality and force of these workers trying to knock a horse down to the ground, even if the scene only lasts a few seconds. Something about this short sequence of brutality hints at an eeriness and echo of violence that might transpire during this story’s runtime. It also contrasts its setting; Galicia offers beautiful sights, as well as deep-rooted traditions, such as the aforementioned one, that have stayed for centuries. After that introduction, we meet the central pairing of the film, Antoine and Olga (Denis Ménochet and Marina Foïs), a French couple who live happily in their Galician countryside village home where they farm various vegetables (such as lettuce and tomatoes) and rehabilitate old abandoned houses. 

Their setting and contemporary living are idyllic, but things will not stay like that for long. Some of their neighbors view them as if they shouldn’t belong there. Brothers Xan (Luis Zahera) and Lorenzo (Diego Anido) resent them, often referring to him as “Frenchy” (a hateful “description” that goes back to the times of Napoleon), because Antoine and Olga voted against the construction of a wind turbine that would give them money. But would that cash be enough for them to live a new life elsewhere? Antoine doesn’t think it is a buyable option, as his land is profitable and prosperous. Meanwhile, Xan is blinded by the mere idea of having some currency in his pockets, viewing it as their hopeful escape. That cash might have been their only way out of a place filled with misery and hardship, even though it wasn’t enough to change their current state. Antagonistic repression is now haunting Antoine and Olga’s daily lives, caused by the hate-riddled neighbors who are blistering with anger because of their decisions. 

They want to make their life a living hell so that they leave “their territory” for good. This vendetta, getting more brutal and cruel by the second, will have long-lasting consequences for everyone entangled in it. Within this urban vs. rural feud between Antoine and Xan, Rodrigo Sorogoyen explores gentrification and xenophobia amidst the infrastructures of class and immigration. These multi-layered topics are explored by intertwining one another during the story’s two-hour runtime. From the moment As Bestas begins, you are hooked and entranced by Sorogoyen’s vision of these similarly true-to-life scenarios, fueled by the uncertainty of the two brother’s malicious actions. As the film transpires, you get the haunting sense of impending doom. Moments of silence keep the audience on tenterhooks, waiting for something vicious to happen because Xan and Lorenzo’s souls are rotten. 

Rodrigo Sorogoyen is known for delivering tension-filled pictures, but nothing in his filmography could have prepared you for what As Bestas (The Beasts) brings to the table. The films of Jon Boorman (Deliverance) and Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs) come to mind due to the film’s thriller-like narrative developments. However, without the exploitation aspects of their work and, on this occasion, it is set in a contemporary setting. And there are moments in which one begins to think that Sorogoyen might lose the humanistic side of the story for a more Straw Dogs-inspired one. But he knows well enough not to dwell on those over-the-top tendencies. Instead, he divides the film into different frames during its two halves centering on the two partners in the leading characters, Antoine and Olga. The former’s story has more disturbing thriller-esque elements, containing heavy amounts of suspense both during its conversational set-pieces, particularly the numerous bar scenes, and the eerie chasing sequences in the woods. 

The latter has a more contemplative and meditative emotional core that discusses grief, family, and justice while implementing some detective plot trappings. However, both halves contain two important and intriguing dialogue scenes – one between Antoine and Xan while the other centers on Olga and her daughter, Marie (Marie Colomb), who steals the show during her short runtime. These two pivotal scenes demonstrate the film’s thesis between two different perspectives and age groups, swinging viewers’ emotions from left to right. Much like in Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N., Sorogoyen’s movie has a more profound impact on the audience because the world hasn’t changed one bit – there are still people with hate in their hearts, and little to no change is happening. The harsh reality of our times is demonstrated through these piercing dialogue scenes more so than the ones where Xan and Lorenzo torment the French couple. And while Sorogoyen and Isabel Peña’s screenplay is strong, the performances of the film’s main quintet hold it together. 

As Bestas (The Beasts) is occasionally disturbing because of its intertwining between longing, disdain, and loss in its three acts. While Antoine and Olga yearn for a more profitable set of crops, Xan and Lorenzo ensure their dreams don’t come to fruition, all ending at the hands of grief, in whichboth parties will suffer a casualty of some sort. Nevertheless, you can see why many admire it. As Bestas is not your typical film that ravages through the European awards bodies (such as the Goya and César awards). But more than that, it is a film we need now, containing such a sense of urgency, unlike most movies that were nominated for the Oscars recently. 

Grade: A

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