As Bestas (2022): Of You the Tale is Told
As Bestas (Image source, Le Pacte)
Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s 2022 film The Beasts, or As Bestas in Galician, has attracted the attention of major international festivals, especially Cannes, with its multi-layered and in-depth narrative. The film’s original title is a reference to a Galician festival in which mares (bestas) roaming freely in the mountains are captured by brute force, their manes and tails cut off and tagged. Indeed, at the very beginning of the movie, as a prologue, we see a disturbing scene in which two men pounce on a horse and immobilize it. This scene is replicated almost verbatim in a more disturbing sequence later in the film when two men charge at another man, leaving him breathless.
The story of As Bestas revolves around a French couple who buy land in a small town in Galicia, intending to grow and sell environmentally friendly agricultural products and build a modest self-sufficient life, but are subjected to bullying by their neighbors. As the film progresses, this narrative unfolds layer by layer, enriching itself by touching upon issues such as xenophobia, culture clash, ecological devastation and impunity. The main trigger for the tension between the French couple Antoine and Olga and their neighbors Xan and Loren brothers, is a wind turbine project that a company wants to build in the town, and the willingness to buy their land and pay for it. For the protagonists of the movie, who are divided into two poles, hope is represented in two opposing ways. For Xan and Loren brothers, the money from this project seems to be the only opportunity to escape the countryside they are trapped in. For Antoine and Olga, who have only been residents of the town for two years, the eco-friendly agrarian life they have built is part of their personal utopia. Therefore, while deepening its subject matter, the film does not take the easy way out, does not caricature its characters, and invites the audience to identify with the French couple and to understand the Galician brutes within a broader socio-economic framework without legitimizing their deeds.
Antoine’s resistance to signing a petition for the wind turbine project makes himself, the crops of the land he and his wife cultivate and the modest utopia they have built a target for Xan and Loren. From this point on, a series of bullying begins, which makes the French couple feel like the town is closing in on them, and the movie’s tone of tension rises. There are many reasons to consider As Bestas beyond the ordinary thriller genre. The social layers that the film unravels open up various possibilities to place it in the realm of a political thriller. Moreover, in my opinion, the movie becomes above all a political allegory of our times. There are a few noteworthy points here: The brothers Xan and Loren go so far as to sabotage the French couple’s crops, which they have spent a year cultivating, by mixing chemicals into the irrigation system. The French couple’s quest for justice is frustrated by the indifference of law enforcement and the reward of impunity that ultimately goes to the bullies. Antoine finds the solution in buying a handheld camera and trying to record every negative incident that might happen from now on. In fact, what has been told so far is a familiar story that we all know intimately. Here is a narrative that cuts across the state of the 21st century-justice struggles. A fascism encouraged by capitalism and directed against various minority groups, a state of impunity resulting from the conscious/implicit cooperation of the state and its law enforcement agencies, and the burden of proof placed on the shoulders of people seeking justice… Let us remember that today, people who are subjected to police brutality try to record what is happening on their cell phones even before saving their lives. This witnessing mission of video as a third eye is now a part of our daily lives more than ever. In fact, it is worth underlining that a kind of ontology of “I record, therefore I exist” has turned into a resistance strategy against the power holders who try to obscure all their crimes.
The political implications of the movie are not limited to these. What turns the place where they were born and raised into hell for Xan and Loren brothers lies behind the fact that the capital moving to the urban areas turns the countryside into ghost places where no one visits, that fertile land becomes the investment focus of corporations, and that those who are forced to live in these places are left with poverty and poor living conditions. For this reason, contrary to the global trend, the poorer they become, the more they withdraw into themselves, creating a state of survival in which concepts such as environmental sensitivity, equality and justice become obsolete. Isn’t this exactly in line with the profile of the far right that is rising globally? In a way, Xan and Loren represent this profile in the movie. The two brothers in question dangerously channel their disagreement with Antoine over wind turbines into dichotomies such as indigeneity-foreignness, illiteracy-education, provincialism-urbanism, and barbarism-civilization, from which they derive an absolute rightness that legitimizes even violence. It is important to remember that right-wing policies, which go in tandem with fascism, are guided by this resentment and inferiority complexes of the extremely impoverished masses. By turning a blind eye to this uncontrolled resentment with the same kind of indifference as in the movie, the rulers manage to channel it towards groups that advocate for human rights, democracy, or nature against capital.
As Bestas is not a simple story of xenophobia as many have so easily characterized it. Because, as I mentioned above, Xan and Loren’s hatred of Antoine does not come from the fact that he is French. There is something more subtle here, where a misguided class hatred is intertwined with a discourse of nativism. Even if Xan never calls Antoine by his name –because he only calls him “Frenchman”. Antoine’s mere two-year presence on this land is collided with Xan’s 52-year history, raising a problem similar to the one Brecht traces in The Caucasian Chalk Circle: Does the land belong to its first owner, or to the one who grows and cultivates it? Of course, the unbridled brutality on Xan and Loren’s side does not refrain from barbarously eliminating the grounds for discussion and potential answers to this question in favor of the “first owner”. The fate of the horses that were brutally slaughtered at the beginning of the movie is now shared by Antoine – trying to record what he knows will happen to him. We see the “Frenchman” in close-up with two men on top of him until he wheezes and gasps for breath. One inevitably thinks of George Floyd, the black American who was strangled under the knees of policemen and murdered with cries of “I can’t breathe”. It becomes difficult to think of such images apart from the political context they evoke, apart from our collective traumas.
From here onwards, the movie takes on a familiar tone once again. The struggle for justice is taken over by those left behind. Olga, who has found her husband’s efforts futile all this time, is the new protagonist of the film, trying to continue an endless search for years, pursuing the stubbornness of being right. Like people in Argentina, Mexico or Turkey who have been searching for the bones of their relatives murdered by the state for years, she turns finding her husband’s body into a pursuit identical to life itself. He continues to fight, to produce, to cultivate life, all alone in this hellish Galician outback, a place he has no interest in staying. Indeed, this vexing impunity, injustice and inequality gives rise to a stubbornness that is impossible to avoid or remain indifferent to. Just like Olga, her daughter Marie, who comes from France, follows the same trajectory as her mother and undergoes a transformation, from a resigned denial into a state of furious rebellion and struggle. For Marie, knowing that nothing has changed over the years and having breathed the intimidating atmosphere of the Galician countryside even for a few days is enough for this transformation, while she re-strengthens her ties with her mother through feelings of solidarity.
In As Bestas, as Marx famously put it in Latin, “de te fabula narratur” –of you the tale is told. The Spanish director portrays the world we all live in in all its complexity, around a spiral of hope, despair, stubbornness, desperation, struggle, injustice, anger, and violence. Perhaps the difference from other films of its kind is that it does not indulge in an easy romanticism where the good wins in the end. Yes, we will always defend nature against destruction and justice against tyranny, but As Bestas suggests that we should pause for a moment to consider that the communities we are confronted with are in fact victims of the system in different respects as well. The moral journey the film invites us on is not an easily consumable path, and neither is the struggle itself. The authenticity of these characters Sorogoyen created with Isabel Peña successfully represents all this complexity.