La Caza

Lawrence Russell

La Caza (The Hunt), 1965 dir. Carlos Saura writ. Saura and Angelino Fons cine. Luis Cuadrado music Luis DePablo star. Ismael Merlo, Jose Maria Prado, Emilio G. Caba, Violeta Garcia, Fernando Sandez Polock

Four men assemble for a rabbit hunt on the desert property of Jose, a business man and host of the hunt. The arroyo where the hunt takes place just happens to be a battlefield of the Spanish Civil War in which three of the men took part. As the temperature rises and the three veterans begin to disintegrate from the heat, continuous drinking and pill popping, their separate agendas converge in a bloody finale that turns the hunters into the hunted and reveals the psychoses of a generation... and, perhaps, Nature itself.

La Caza -- an ugly piece of work with the visceral authenticity of a snuff movie. While the Hollywood film culture is driven by the Gun Drama, this is the only film I've ever seen that truly deserves to be in the genre. The four men are defined by their guns: Jose and Paco, vets, businessmen, uneasy friends, use double-barreled shotguns, their chambers sheathed in silver plating, the ornate scrolls like the new-found pedigree of their wealth. Luis, vet, the business partner of Jose and science fiction aficionado, has a sniper rifle, its telescopic site clearly designed for targeting humans, not rabbits... aliens, not Spaniards. And young Enrique is armed with his father's pistol, a German Luger from the Civil War.... Like all exercises in human realism, the humour is in the bizarre, the madness in the detail.

And these men are mad. When they arrive in the arid river valley and begin setting up camp, Luis tells Enrique: "Many died here -- it's a good place for killing." In a metaphor for this valley of death, much of the rabbit population has been destroyed by myxomatosis, a disease introduced by humans to control the "rabbit invasion". The first rabbit turned up by Cuca the dog is dead, its eyes hanging from the sockets of its bloated face, the definitive signature of myxomatosis.

As they sit in their sun tent preparing their weapons, they discuss the nature of the hunt:

Luis: A real hunter isn't interested in cowardly, inoffensive rabbits.

Paco: (shrugs) Neither weak nor crippled have a part in life -- it's the law of Nature.

Enrique: You're not serious.

Jose: He's right as far as hunting goes... rabbits are defenseless. The more defenses the quarry puts up, the better the hunt.

Luis: That's why someone said the best hunt is the manhunt.

Paco: (jittery) What's that? (Luis shrugs) The hunt is like life -- the strong take out the weak.

Jose: Sometimes the opposite happens....

It turns out that Jose's motive for the hunt has been to hit up Paco for a loan. Jose's life is in crisis -- he's left his wife, taken up with a young beauty called Mirabel, now has a financial problem. In an analogue to his own situation (and Spain's) the crippled gamekeeper Juan asks Jose for five thousand pesetas to help deal with his mother's illness... and of course Jose refuses, just as Paco later refuses him. Jose's refusal is conditional, however, unlike Paco's.

The first hunt is like a military patrol. The men fan out, and as they follow the dog through the sage, the dialogue becomes interior, arguments with the Self, or in the case of the young Enrique, a deja vu: Seems to me I've been here before... the scent of the thyme... was I ever in such a place? The subsequent montage of rabbit kills engages the poetry of violence in a sequence that anticipates (and probably influenced) Peckinpah's famous ambush montage at the beginning of The Wild Bunch. Drums roll in military meter as the men fire at will and the rabbits roll down embankments, convulse, die in what is clearly the real thing. The contradiction of ugliness and beauty is perfectly actualized in the action and the contemplation.

This could be used as a basis for a theory of art -- but is it art or merely documentary?

It's cinema at its best, where the voyeurism places the beholder into an ethical crisis. From here on the film becomes relentless. It might not suit everyone to see life in terms of the famous Hobbesian credo of "nasty, brutish and short" but this world-view is dramatized by Saura in convincing detail. The second hunt wherein we see a ferret terrorize the rabbits in their tunnel warren is pure cinematic genius. The tunnels are shown in cross-section and we see the ferret -- which has a chiming bell tied to its neck -- trap and kill a rabbit before flushing the others out to be massacred in the cross-fire. It's like looking in on a laboratory experiment -- ugly, but an undeniable characteristic of the human experience, just like the daily slaughter of cattle in abattoirs everywhere.

Is it blood fever or an reenactment of the past? The men recall the old days and the camaraderie of an old associate, Arturo (the youngster Enrique is really his replacement in the hunting party), who takes on the atmosphere of a ghost. In a pivotal scene Jose tells Paco he has "a secret in these hills" and takes him up to a cave which has a padlocked door. Inside, Paco is shocked to see a skeleton sitting against the wall, and quickly withdraws.

Jose: I found it years ago.

Paco: Then why not bury it as God ordains?

A good question. The identity of the skeleton is as ambiguous as is Jose's intention. Later, as the men eat lunch at the camp:

Luis: It's like a funeral. He must've shown you the dead man.

Enrique: Who? Arturo?

Luis: Jose's big secret: a war casualty he keeps hidden in a cave.

Enrique: Which war?

Luis: Any war -- which do you prefer?

Luis's madness seems more advanced than that of the others, as he uses Science Fiction like a Christian fundamentalist uses the scriptures in his perception of the impending Apocalypse.

Luis: You haven't much time left. A day will come when the rabbits will invade, form a new civilization. And as they're smaller than us, there will be room for all. The class struggle will disappear, and so will envy. First, though, there will be a war with the rats....

As they settle in to sleep through the afternoon siesta, the men become more edgy, events more primal. Paco and Jose doze in the tent as a melodrama between a man and a woman plays softly on the radio, their fevered dialogue like an expose of the hunters' desperate dreams. Meanwhile Luis circles the dummy of a woman (brought from the village for target practice), muttering his maxim for living: A thing is moral if you feel good after it... and immoral if you feel bad after it. He spikes a beetle, pins in the chest of the dummy, takes aim, obliterates it after several shots. He seems to be acting out a hatred for his cheating wife or all women, whom he likens to vampires and ferrets.

The shooting startles the sleeping hunters in the tent. Enraged at this and other indiscretions, Jose punches Luis, hammers his "partner" to the ground -- as if Luis alone is responsible for his nightmare. Thus the circle of humiliation widens.

Meanwhile Enrique is paning the horizon with binoculars, sees the caves, then sees the young niece of the gamekeeper bathing outside their adobe. His discontent is sexual and elementary. He starts a fire with a pinup magazine. Luis joins him, throws the dummy onto the fire... which -- like the emotions of the hunters -- gets out of hand, spreads through the sage... and is only put out with difficulty.

Paco -- who was the cause of Arturo's death (whether it was murder or suicide) -- has also crossed the line. As he watches the gamekeeper struggle with the ferret cages, he says to himself, "The cripple looks like a ferret." When he shoots the ferret at the end of the hunt, it's obvious to both the gamekeeper and Jose that it's a deliberate execution. As Paco examines his face in a vanity mirror, Jose takes aim on him but is distracted by the private hunt of Enrique and Luis, a bizarre ritual in which the youth stalks through the sage with his Luger pistol accompanied by Luis in the Land Rover. When they flush out a rabbit and start shooting, the others join in by reflex... and Jose uses the opportunity to blow Paco away.

The gunfight between Luis and Jose is short and brutal, completely realistic. Enrique, stunned at this turn of events, runs away, escaping the arroyo and the battlefield. The film ends with a freeze frame of his flight as he gains the top of the hill.

If there's a victim, it's Jose, as he's the only one of the three veterans with any humanity. He can't help Juan the gamekeeper with cash, but says he'll help with medicine and hospital bills. He recognizes Luis's lunacy, tries to manage him and can't, and even after he strikes him, he begs Luis's forgiveness. Luis is clear cut in his homicidal nature, his code a simple rationalization of death by numbers. Paco is cunning and no less homicidal, a natural fascist who views life as a triumph of the strong over the weak. Jose is really a sentimentalist, a man who keeps a skeleton in a closet (cave) because he needs to remember the past in order to blackmail the present. But if the guilt is meant for himself or Paco remains circumspect. In the end, he's a victim of his own machinations, a Don of Guilt, Bankruptcy and Death.

When this film appeared in 1965 -- ten years before Franco's death -- Spain was still a society under armed guard. The Guardia Civil stood on street corners in every town of significance with sub-machine guns, a sort of welfare army for the fascist regime still living the fantasy of the Conquistador. La Caza is only obliquely anti-fascist. The red and the black schism of Spain -- like some sort of special Latino schizophrenia -- runs its political and spiritual arrow right through the souls of these characters, although hunting and killing can be found in any country, any culture.

Excellent acting, beautiful editing rhythm, sophisticated story, subtle cinematography....

It's hard to find anything wrong with this film, save that it might not be what you want to see. There's no fantasy in the use of guns here, just as there is no fantasy in the outcome of the story. The only fantasy exists within the characters -- and this, after all, is what delineates the human within the animal.

© LR 25/5/99


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