It takes a good, long time for Jonathan Cenzual Burley’s “El Pastor (The Shepherd)” to become the thriller that comes to mind the moment you hear its description. But he makes sure that in this gritty tale of a lone-holdout who won’t sell his land to developers, throwing his shortsighted neighbors into a tizzy, it’s time well spent.
The Spanish drama constantly echoes the many Hollywood versions of this “lone-holdout” formula film, but the patience, detail and slow-simmer-to-slow-boil plot set it apart from its genre antecedents. It’s good.
Miguel Martín impresses as Anselmo, a lonely shepherd living outside a village whose only significant employer is a hog abattoir, a slaughterhouse for the pigs destined to be the jamon the Spanish crave from birth.
Anselmo lives a simple, Spartan life — a gas stone, a dog, Pillo, who helps with the sheep, and electricity so that he doesn’t have to read by candlelight.
That and his stops at the local bar are the only indulgences he allows himself. At 55, anyone else would see this as a rut, a dead end. But when developers come and give him the full-court press sales pitch — they want his land as part of their scheme for a planned community of houses, shops and a civic center — he politely brushes them off. Not interested.
They’re offering his a “more than fair” (in Spanish with English subtitles) price. Probably not enough to support him into his dotage, but “fair.” He’s just not going to change.
“He must be a little slow,” they figure. Not to worry. Local peer pressure should change his mind.
With big money, big debts and miscalculated “logic,” meat-packer Julian (Alfonso Mendiguchía) and his hotheaded employee Paco (Juan Luis Sara) figure this is a done deal. It isn’t.
Friends and others warn Anselmo that he’s “in for a hard time.” They have no idea. Things can only get messier from there.
Little-used leading man Martín, of “Celda 211,” maintains a “stubborn” without seeming that way posture, giving us a simple man who prefers a knowable status quo to the “promises” of the deal, which his land is the linchpin for.
Burley shows us the ulterior motives of the developers and those in their thrall, but doesn’t develop the light flirtation Anselmo has with the local librarian (Maribel Iglesias). This is all about desperate people whose desperation seems self-generated, a guy who fits in well enough most times, but has a growing list of enemies when he dares cling to what he has.
The striking central Spanish plains settings and self-contained world Burley captures here is what sets this formulaic film apart. That, and its patience. We know things are going to come to a head. He makes us wait to see how, and then provides a surprise or two in how that happens.
Not the first time we’ve seen this sort of story, but not a bad variation of it.
Rating: Unrated, violence
Cast: Miguel Martín, Juan Luis Sara, Alfonso Mendiguchía and Maribel Iglesias
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jonathan Cenzual Burley. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 1:38