The story of two Italians doggedly trying to turn a profit on a stolen champion breeding bull in the new Central Europe isn’t exactly high on the common experience agenda for most folks. But in the hands of director Carlo Mazzacurati, a resourceful scripting team and a winning duo of contrasting but complementary actors, the characters’ dilemmas are invested with enough gentle humor, pathos and unexpected immediacy to transform them into a universally human struggle. A quiet charmer in a seductively mellow key, “The Bull” looks to be a strong contender to horn in on international arthouse markets.
With no undue wringing of hands, the film’s opening reel quickly sketches a melancholy portrait of a basically honest man driven by frustration to drastic measures. Burly co-op stud-farm worker Franco (Diego Abatantuono) loses his job due to staff cutbacks. When his employers refuse to cough up his settlement money, he breaks into their offices at night to confiscate legal proof of what he’s owed. But while he’s foraging, the farm’s prize bull, Corinto, sidles up, and the animal itself seemingly initiates the idea of the theft.
Having coaxed the massive beast off the premises, he goes looking for help from his good-heartedly meek chum Loris (Roberto Citran), who’s battling to get by raising calves. Franco’s plan is to transport the valuable bull to Hungary, where it’s less readily identifiable, and hence more easily salable.
Having established its singular central quest, the film then switches gears, taking on an appealing, indolent rhythm as the protagonists’ problem-strewn journey gets under way. Traveling sequences are given a lilting gait by Ivano Fossati’s lush, richly melodic tunes, with the duo’s various encounters — of both the helpful and hindering kind — casually rooted in the sober social, political and economic realities of the region. That said, the drama remains primarily a human one.
At a Croatian railway station, a Samaritan stationmaster takes possession of Corinto, eyeing the bull as food for the hoards of war-zone evacuees camped in an unused train. With some remorse, Franco and Loris hightail it, taking shelter with a humble family when their truck breaks down in the middle of rural nowhere.
This interlude is arguably the best of many warmly effective feel-good moments. As in most of the film, the humor stays well clear of the easy-laughs territory, remaining easy and unforced as the Italians cook for their hosts and later lazily romance the young mother whose husband is presumably a war absentee.
Franco and Loris eventually orchestrate a deal for Corinto with a group of kindly dairy farmers. It’s a genuinely uplifting ending that comes as a refreshingly uncynical surprise.
Having begun some time back to play minor variations on the type of character that earned him popularity in pix like “Mediterraneo,” Abatantuono is considerably more contained here. Perhaps because of the competition, he’s less bullish, balancing his towering physical presence and natural aggression with a good dose of introspective sensitivity. Citran backs him up faultlessly, tapping immense audience sympathy almost from his first moments onscreen.
In his customarily uncluttered style, director Mazzacurati tinkles away at the emotional keyboard with no sign of manipulation. The fine script touches on notions of humanity, compassion and dignity, along with sporting a strong feel for the land and the animals raised on it. Only weak link is the early, careful intro of Franco’s family, who are subsequently never referred to or even advised when he takes to the road.
Alessandro Pesci’s agreeably loose camerawork makes a handsome palette of the vast landscapes. Mirco Garrone’s editing strings the journey’s many legs together at a breezy, fluid pace, taking only a minor dip in the central section , which could be cured with tightening by a further 10 minutes.