Argentine writer-director Andrew Sala (“Pantanal”) brings his new film “The Barbaric” to the highly competitive Works in Progress section of Sanfic Industria, and brings with it a heavy contender filled with violence, secrets and the echoes of power. In “The Barbaric,” Nacho leaves an abusive mother in the city to live and work with his estranged father on his cattle ranch in the Pampas plains. Once there, he must learn to find his way within a world of hidden histories and damning lineages.
Ignacio Quesada (“The Nights Belong to Monsters,” “Puerta 7”) stars in the film alongside Marcelo Subiotto (“The Crimes that Bind,” “Ciegos”) and rising talent Tamara Rocca — Rocca starred in Agustina San Martín’s debut “To Kill the Beast,” which featured at Guadalajara earlier this year. “The Barbaric” is a co-production between Le Tiro Cine and Nevada Cine.
Variety spoke with Sala ahead of the film’s Sanfic Industria premiere.
A powerful theme in “The Barbaric” is the loss of innocence. What about that theme drew you to this project?
I had to take control of a cow-breeding ranch my mother has in the Pampas (and where half of the film was shot). Seven years ago, I was a filmmaker from Buenos Aires, politically progressive and well intentioned and all of a sudden I found myself as the boss of this ranch where social differences and naturalized violence ruled. At first, I wanted to change the way things worked, but was overwhelmed by contradictions, I made mistakes and found out that my “good intentions” only caused instability and suspicion. I started to question what was right and wrong. Is accepting the injustice and violence of the world part of growing up?
But thinking deeper I soon realized this is not something circumscribed to ranches and rural areas, but something everywhere. In Buenos Aires, thousands of people walk down the streets ignoring homeless, starving children, and we’ve naturalized this completely. So in a way this sense of loss of innocence that I was going through impregnated the whole film.
The film deals with family, class, and power through the structure of the cattle ranch. How did the setting help with these themes?
Most cattle ranches originate in the “Conquest of the Desert” name given to the genocide of Argentina’s native population 150 years ago. Military men who fought against the native population were given huge pieces of land in exchange for their service, and settlers of European descent took this recently unoccupied land. The “estancias” were passed down from generation to generation, to this day.
Civilization and barbarism is a classic antinomy in Argentine history, going all the way back to America’s conquest and the subsequent extermination of the native population in military campaigns. The pro-European elite of the country’s capital, Buenos Aires, would identify civilization with the city, with the urban, with what was in contact with the European. In the rural countryside, the boss with European roots also tried to differentiate himself from the natives and gauchos. The former called themselves “civilized,” the latter were the wake of barbarism. In order to exterminate and subjugate the barbaric, the armies and pioneers representing the civilized world used gunpowder and terror. They spilled blood all over the desert.
Medical procedures, injury, and death are commonplace on a ranch, and you chose to show several procedures as they are performed – without hiding the reality. What informed this decision?
I needed the audience to see how the rural workers castrate a calf like it’s the most natural thing on earth, while audience members from the city have to close their eyes when faced with such violence. I strive for realness in film. So it was very important to show how it is to live and work in Argentina’s rural pampas. This is why the film was shot on a real cow breeding ranch, and the work with cattle is shown almost in a documentary-style way. For this same reason, we mixed professional actors with non-actors and we distanced the universe of the film from certain preconceived notions and stereotypes about the pampas and their inhabitants. We avoided folkloric idealizations and quaintness, and instead we made a point in showing a contemporary rural environment, where traditional elements coexist with contemporary ones, particularly in the choice of location, the objects characters use, wardrobe and, especially, the way the characters speak.
The final scene has Nacho making an important choice, and then ends with the same pose as the photo he was infatuated with in the ranch house. What is the significance of this shot?
When Nacho first sees this photo, his father comes up and says that his own father used to ask him the question about what was this first Risdale thinking at the moment the picture was taken, like a question passed down from generation to generation. I wanted the spectator to have that same question in mind in the final scene: What is Nacho thinking? And that’s where the title of the film comes in. Nacho, in that final shot in front of his father, finally understands the extent of barbarism; the dominance of a patriarchal society is intact.