Arriving in Pamplona, Spain with a skeleton crew, no script, and just the threadbare idea of making a movie about a young bullfighter, Italian director Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano) started shooting the San Fermín Festival, better known worldwide as “The Running Of The Bulls.” There’s no making-of featurette on the new Criterion edition of The Moment Of Truth, but those early scenes of the festival suggest the DNA for Rosi’s exhilarating docu-fiction, which sets the rituals and aesthetic pleasures of bullfighting against its shocking brutality and gore. Once the pomp and circumstance of San Fermín street parades have ended, Rosi’s cameras catch scenes of raw terror, as bulls stampede through the masses and blood runs down the stone-cobbled streets. Given the improvisatory beginnings of the project, the story Rosi concocts is predictably threadbare, following a handsome young Andalusian as he seeks fame and fortune in the ring. But within that simple framework, he accents the tenuous life of the matador with chillingly intimate bullfighting footage.
His most important coup was casting Miguel Mateo, an actual bullfighting legend more popularly known as “Miguelín,” in the lead role, which costs less than expected in terms of amateur performance and gains much in charisma and verisimilitude. As a 24-year-old with no taste for the dull grind of managing his father’s modest farm, Mateo strikes out for Barcelona, but months of manual labor make it seem like city life and country life are not that different for him. When he hears word of a teacher giving lessons to would-be young matadors, he charms himself into class and his zeal and natural talent lead to a quick ascendancy. In a stunning scene, Mateo makes his mark by going from spectator to performer, leaping into the ring with a smuggled red cape and easily dodging both the bull and the men trying to detain him. His bold gambit pays off in an agent and contracts that lead him from appearances in crude country rings to marquee turns in the massive arenas of Madrid and Barcelona.
There’s an element of What Makes Sammy Run?-level empty ambition to Mateo’s quest: He talks about wanting to earn enough money to get rich and retire, but retire to what? And when? Meanwhile, he’s living just one mistake or bad twist of luck from terrible injury or worse, and fame is leading to vanity, which in turn leads to a fatal complacency. Rosi renders Mateo’s existential crisis with striking bursts of visual poetry: A sequence where the hero strolls back into the country during harvest time wouldn’t look out of place in Days Of Heaven. But it’s the handheld, up-close-and-personal footage in the ring that really pops, documenting a tango between bull and matador that’s beautiful to behold—right up to the eponymous moment, when death brings it to a clumsy, graceless end.
Key features: A slim package by Criterion standards, but a 2004 interview with Rosi and a lengthy liner-notes essay by critic Peter Matthews provide some solid context.