Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 25, 2018 8:55 pm 
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"Si ruba cogli occhi" (You steal with the eyes)

The guy tells us right away: they are not Italian "cowboys." They are "butteri." In Argentina (and other South American countries) there are the "gauchos." In Hungary there are the "zigos." In America there are the "cowboys." And in Italy there are the "butteri." E basta.

Once in a while a documentary comes along about something special and unique that is beautifully made, and this is such a documentary. This is an absolutely stunning documentary, and it is not yet listed on IMDb. It is as beautiful as it is filled with specific information, so it is richly informative and also aesthetically satisfying and thought provoking. It is not the new kind of intensive observation like those of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Foreign Parts, People's Park, Leviathan), but of the more conventional kind, and there is much dependence on talking heads and voiceover narration by participants. But the tapestry is rich and the mood at times is enchanting, thanks to continually beautiful visuals of cattle, horses, men, and varied landscape, and the emerging sense of a way of life that is as tough-mindedly practical as it is moral and aesthetic.

Alberese, in the Tuscan Maremma, is home to the last three remaining butteri, heroic men who still rear cattle in the wild, living examples of the possibility of redemption between humans and nature. They speak of the legends, Augusto Imperiali, Italo Molinari, and Mario Petrucci. The eyes of these men and their animals reflect the feeling they have of living a life with meaning, a life that they will never give up. Two young men have joined the group to learn this traditional craft, a tough job that few can do. Only one of them will make it. The future of this ancient world will lie in his hands.

When we think of cowboys we think of vast western lands, and of course the Wild West, the frontier, Indians. The butteri reside in the Maremma region, a coastal area of western central Italy bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was adapted and tamed in the past as a place where men could cultivate with animals and live in harmony with them (It was a malarial region, but that was ended by the Second World War.) It includes much of southwestern Tuscany and part of northern Lazio. It is a civilized region, and a beautiful one, to which Walter Bencini's camera does full justice. The men we meet are civilized and dedicated, responsible raisers of cattle who, we learn early on, make a point of knowing the names of all the cattle and knowing the names of their mothers and grandmothers, and can recognize them by the contours of their horns, or their stride. Ever see that talked about in a Western?

The young ones still hanker after it. The special, closed world. When the older ones say "Si ruba cogli occhi," you steal with the eyes, they refer to the fact that the oldtimers would never answer questions, you just had to observe them. An oldtimer provides background, how the region was developed under fascism, how most of the butteri then came from the Veneto region. This is an exclusive, macho world, whose toughness and pride are reinforced by making it hard to enter. An oldtimer scoffs at the idea of accepting a woman, because he thinks the work of today's butteri has become too physically demanding.

Not only are the horses and the cattle and the land beautiful, but the men have a style that would make Ralph Lauren green with envy, a seasoned, unpretentious but inimitable elegance. They wear brimmed hats, but not the cowboy kind. They wear boots and leather chaps and vests, that look like a million dollars, or thousands of dollars of goods from Filson, the pricy Seattle outdoor and work outfitters.

"The passion you have for this work is also a passion for these animals," says a buttero, and they speak of the satisfaction they take in training a horse, while another says his greatest love has turned out to be for the cattle. The men are uncomplicated, perhaps, but they are articulate in expressing the significance of their interaction with animals as the essential joy of their profession.

Bencini divides the film into seasons, and also uses aerial drone shots for a new look at herding, both diagrammatic and beautiful. As time goes on, we also learn that the work of the buttero done at this farm is harder than ever, because they do more of the tasks of the farm, and don't just ride around on their horses all day as they did in the old days. The work requires absolute love and determination. Like being a classical musician, it requires that you start at it very young and that you have a natural gift for it combined with a passion that never lets up. And in this case, the salary isn't much. So when they put out a call for applicants, it's not 120 who turn up but 12, and of those only a couple are real possibilities. Through the course of the film, which was shot over a period of several years, we see only three full-fledged butteri and two younger aspirants, one of whom withdraws from the work after two years.

This way of working with the animals, horses and cattle, out in nature, is what in principle everybody wants: it's natural, organic, slow food, all the good stuff. But in the distance faintly we hear the rumbling of machines, and the most experienced buttero of the farm who is the most authoritative narrator, and has the longest memory, can also anticipate the time in his children's lives that this way of life will fade away. With that Bencini's image itself of butteri on their horses managing the cattle, it too fades away. A fitting ending for a tough-minded but romantic film.

The Last Italian Cowboys/Gli ultimi butteri, 95 mins., was released 18 Jun., 2018, distributed by Istituto Luce Cinecittà and Berta Film. Screened for this review as part of the New Italian Cinema series in San Francisco, where it shows Sat. 1 Dec. 2018 at 3:45 p.m.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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