Review: The Shepherd (El Pastor) dir. Jonathan Cenzual Burley

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There’s always been something inherently heroic about a narrative of pastoral beauty and the encroaching enemies of construction and progress. The Shepherd, written and directed by Jonathan Cenzual Burley, is a fine, beautifully shot manifestation of that, and a stellar example of an exercise in cinematic pacing.
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The Shepherd 
opens with a gorgeous ten-minute sequence of the Spanish countryside, seen through the eyes of middle-aged shepherd and protagonist Anselmo (Miguel Martin), as he leads a simple existence with his dog Pillo tending to his flock in a solitary house. It’s easy to side with him and want him to keep his slice of paradise as he goes to the library, drinks his morning coffee and appreciates the naturally vibrant spectrum of colours in the sunset to Tim Walters’ score, unintrusive and fitting perfectly with the scenery.
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All this is set to change when two members of a construction company approach him one morning to convince him to sell his land to make way for a new residential complex. Beset by the sinisterly smooth Julian (Alfonso Mediguchia) and the more rash, hen-pecked Paco (Juan Luis Sara), Anselmo’s refusal quickly leads to an escalating conflict and their initial gentle methods of persuasion eventually turn violent.
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Anselmo’s hirsute, gruff appearance calls to mind a simplicity that the two suited antagonists lack, caught up in their own complicated schemes, debt and urban problems. Although we understand the increasing desperation the antagonists themselves are going through, there is little to make us ever want to side with them, as Anselmo’s country life is depicted as infinitely more attractive, imbued with an innocence that fills us with outrage for those who seek to displace it with cruelty and violence.

Miguel Martin cuts a figure of strength and permanence, an unwavering force that stands firm in spite of the forces that seek to topple him. There is a quiet, stoic power that emanates from him, and there is no need for him to resort to force or shouting to get his way. Even though there are enemies from all sides, including fellow villagers trying to convince him to sell the land, he is steadfast in his beliefs, constantly aware he has the upper hand, and that in itself is a source of incredible admiration.

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Burley is a master of setting, able to paint Anselmo’s country life in gorgeous natural hues, capturing the pleasure of watching the movement of sheep or the joy of an uncomplicated meal, and the relationship between man and dog. When Julian brings Anselmo to his slaughterhouse, the positioning of pig carcasses hanging from hooks gives off a sense of Julian’s cold-blooded nature, sending an involuntary shiver down viewers’ backs, while Paco’s homelife is depicted through a claustrophobic dining room, feeling more and more uncomfortable as his wife rails on at him.
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The Shepherd 
is a film that attempts to highlight the heroism in the countryside pit against the evils of corruption and greed. A simple life becomes a thing of beauty when contrast with the pains and complications of the modern world, and something worth fighting for and preserving even in the face of insurmountable odds. Rich in its visuals and a film that easily wins one over with its simple plot and likeable main character, it’s no wonder it swept the awards at the recent London Raindance Festival. It’s certainly one of the most gorgeously shot underdog films we’ve seen in a while, and indubitably, makes us want to slow down in our crazy urban life and stop to watch the sunset once more.

The Shepherd is released in UK cinemas 2nd June.

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