Vacas, 1991

At the trenches of Biscay in 1875 during the Second Carlist War, an army sergeant named Carmelo Mendiluze (Kandido Uranga) learns from a young errand boy named Ilegorri (Ortzi Balda) that a neighbor named Manuel Iriguibel (Carmelo Gómez) from his native village has joined their exhausted battalion. Eager for news of his child’s birth, Carmelo befriends the inexperienced soldier whose reputation as an expert aizcolari (competition log cutter) cannot conceal his apprehension and fear of armed combat. Manuel’s paralyzing timidity results in tragic consequences that is exacerbated by a subsequent ignominious act by Manuel in an attempt to be transported away from the front lines and evade military duty. Thirty years later, in the town of Guipuzcoa, a lingering animosity has continued between the Mendiluze and Iriguibel families. Miguel’s grown son Ignacio (Carmelo Gómez) and the Carmelo’s son Juan (Kandido Uranga) have maintained family traditions by honing their skills as aizcolari. Despite the strained relations between the neighbors, the destinies of the two families seem fatefully interconnected, as a close childhood friendship develops between Juan’s younger brother, Peru (Miguel Ángel García) and Ignacio’s sister, Cristina (Ana Sánchez). Similarly, Juan’s sister, Catalina (Ana Torrent), cannot conceal her romantic interest for Ignacio as she furtively watches him practice cutting logs in the woods – an attraction that proves to be mutual through Ignacio’s playful attempts to catch her already piqued attention. In an attempt to capitalize from the rivalry between the two families, Ilegorri (Karra Elejalde), now a grown man, arranges a waged competition between the two men and soon, Ignacio’s career as an aizcolari contender is launched. Invariably, Ignacio’s travels to national competitions lead to fame and success, and consequently, prolonged separation from his family and his beloved Catalina. But as the vanquished Juan becomes increasingly obsessed and delusional with thoughts of vengeance, can love transcend the bounds of familial obligation?

Julio Medem creates an intelligently crafted, visually exhilarating, and symbolically rich examination of love, duty, and nationalism in Vacas. The title of the film refers to the passive omnipresence of cows, and also serves as a contrasted allusion to the national tradition of bullfighting. Using the repeated perspective of a spectator (shot through a simulated circular diopter, Medem provides an objective chronicle that captures the incongruous coexistence of peace and violence, friendship and betrayal, tranquility and chaos. Correlating the Mendiluze and Iriguibel family rivalry to span pivotal events in Spanish history, Medem further illustrates the cyclical nature of the unresolved strife and vacillating alliance by using the same actor to portray generations of characters, even those from opposing families. Note the actor Carmelo Gómez’s transformation from the cowardly Manuel Iriguibel in the Carlist Wars, to Manuel’s son Ignacio in 1905, and eventually, to the matured photographer, Peru Mendiluze, who returns the Basque region at the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. As the film follows the odd union of the Basque soldiers with the monarchists and the Catholic Church during the Carlist Wars, to the unusual alliance with the socialists and communists for the preservation of the republic against the fascist forces led by Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Medem presents an impartial, yet deeply personal and thought provoking account of the continued devastation, nationalism, and inconstant allegiance of the Basque people, as they struggle for the seemingly elusive causes of autonomy, self-determination, and cultural identity.

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