After 1976’s “Family Portrait,” writer-director Antonio Gimenez-Rico belatedly returns to adapting the work of rural novelist Miguel Delibes in his best pic to date, the austere, leisurely “The Rats.” Although the movie is full of merits, its subject matter is too specific to travel well — there are probably few less action-packed places than a poverty-stricken village in central Spain in the ’50s. Fest runs look like its likeliest fate.
Pic has four sections, each corresponding to one of the seasons, and cinematographer Teo Escamilla, a vet Carlos Saura colaborator, makes the most of the dull browns and overarching skies. Youngster Nini (Alvaro Monje), who is wise beyond his years, lives with his widowed, simple-minded father (Jose Caride), whose job is capturing water rats and selling them for food. An early sequence painstakingly details how this is done, with pic’s main interest lying in its docu approach.
Characters are slightly drawn, basically because most of them have the analytical capability of a water rat. But this is not a drawback in a film that aims primarily at conveying the feel of life at one of Spanish history’s more recent low points.
Father and son live in a cave in the outskirts of the village. What little plot the movie has concerns the attempts to get them out; what little comedy it has points fun, in time-honored Spanish tradition, at the stupidity of local authorities, here embodied by village mayor Justo (Juan Jesus Valverde).
The villagers are victims not only of political decisions made far away; when they pray for rain, for example, it destroys the crops. Local woman Simeona (Esperanza Alonso) goes into a religious fervor and keeps asking Nini to spit at her, while Nini’s father grunts, “The rats are mine” about 20 times before story’s tragic climax.
Pic is a reminder of a time that many older Spaniards are happy to forget and which younger Spaniards want to pretend never existed. To describe it as an “allegory of the human condition,” as Gimenez-Rico has done, is not borne out by the celluloid evidence. Instead, it is a visually stunning series of set pieces — including the highly detailed bleeding of a pig and a remarkable part-Christian, part-pagan church service.
Perfs are solid, particularly by Monje as the young son. There is no music: Effectively and cleverly, Gimenez-Rico uses the sounds of nature — splashing water, hooting owls — as his score.