Review: The Shepherd (El Pastor) (2016)

Festival hit The Shepherd is a drama in the art-house mould that has received critical plaudits and yet has left me leaving quite cold. I suspect The Shepherd might make for a more interesting watch in a cinema setting, but watching it at home I mostly found myself very, very bored.

The titular shepherd, Anselmo (Miguel Martín) goes about his simple, daily routine of making breakfast for himself and his dog Pillo, tending to his sheep, visiting his local bar, and reading. He is visited by two property developers interested in the area, and they offer to buy up his land. Anselmo refuses, much to the annoyance of his neighbours who are willing to sell. And so an increasingly hostile stand-off begins, as greed turns seemingly normal men irrational, and Anselmo must decide how much intimidation he’ll take.

The narrative here is nothing new, and for me there was little to merit telling a tired story again. Certainly, there are some beautiful vistas on display, and that is perhaps the film’s biggest strength. The rest of the time I felt the film’s shaky-cam style to be quite irritating to watch, and something of a block to my investment in the characters. There’s very little to take one by surprise here, and the two halves of the film seem a little uneven – as though the slow, art-house takes of the opening third were simply padding out the thin narrative to follow.

The performances in the film are competent, but at times seem at odds with each other – the tone of some nearing full-blown telenovela-style melodrama while others opt for understatement. It’s hard to tell in translation, but the dialogue is often leaden and obvious, though I’m not sure if the subtitles are necessarily doing the original Spanish justice. I felt it difficult to care much for any of the characters, though, which is quite necessary in a film like this. Though Miguel Martín has won awards for his central role as Anselmo, I found little in the character to get me on-side – except only the fact that those he finds himself facing off with are very easy to dislike.

When things do finally kick off it is at least somewhat satisfying, though the ending feels so inevitable that it can hardly be called thrilling. And ultimately, I suppose, that’s where the film completely failed for me – for what should be a tense thriller, there are neither thrills nor tension. To its credit, though, the film is well-made enough, and for such a seemingly low-budget, looks impressive. I just wish that the film might have had a bit more ambition in its narrative beyond a simple tale of a greed and stoicism.

As an aside, while on the one hand it’s actually quite pleasing to see a low-budget drama such as this – even if I found it less than impressive – get a cinema and DVD release, it’s also rather frustrating that other festival hits remain DVD-less in this country, not least of all the profession-sharing Tharlo, a stunningly shot and stark tale of an isolated shepherd who is taken advantage of at every turn when he’s forced to visit the local town to get an ID card. Watching The Shepherd left me wanting to revisit that film, so to be unable to get that one on DVD is all the more frustrating.

The Shepherd is in UK cinemas on 2nd June, before coming to DVD on 24th July, from Matchbox Films.