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Olive Films // Unrated // January 30, 2018
List Price: $16.45 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 17, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Most people won't forget the first time seeing one of the works of Spanish director Julio Medem, whose evocative imagery and haunting dreamlike tonality result in a distinctive cinematic presence. Oftentimes, the journey through his body of work begins with Sex and Lucia, both for the mesmerizing arthouse mood and for the carnal pleasures captured within, and one will go from there in their pursuits of the director's work, usually landing on the oddly compelling identity mystery Red Squirrel. Medem's directorial debut, Vacas, might end up near the end of some lists of his works to seek out, perhaps because of its historical placement -- between the Carlist and Spanish Civil Wars; the late-1800s to mid-1900s -- or because it focuses on cows and professional lumberjacks. Those interested in the director's work shouldn't be dissuaded out of uncertainty that his first film is unlike his others, as it's comparably moody and lyrical; however, if the abstractions and lack of focus in his prior works didn't sit well before, don't expect anything different out of this messier, scattershot freshman effort.

Vacas transpires across several decades between two bucolic houses in the Basque region of Spain, chronicling the rivalry between two families. The decisions made by soldiers who so happened to be neighbors in the region fuels the rivalry, leaving one of them, Manuel Iriguíbel, to survive with mental trauma that cascades throughout his twilight years. He's the catalyst for the animosity between families, but many other factors play into their problematic associations, both between each other and within the individual families. Competitive speed woodcutting plays a major part, but so does taboo desires and proximity infatuations between the families. Vacas indiscriminately shifts in point-of-view between family members, though the main constant throughout most of the storytelling is Cristina, Manuel's granddaughter, who grows up surrounded by illegitimate children and the normalization of incest, the old man's warping senility, and the emergence of different wars and political conflicts in the region.

Outside of a few historical scenes, the entirety of Vacas takes place either one the grounds of the houses or in the wooded areas of the countryside between them, reducing the physical scope so that the myriad interfamily threads can easily crisscross with one another. Medem has the best of intentions with an eerie soundtrack and intimate cinematography that accentuates the lushness of the land, the grain of wood, and the impact of hatchets on lumber, but his film gets off to a hazy, complicated start with convoluted relationships and such a strong emphasis on the woodcutting. There's little else quite like how Medem builds suspense and an almost dreamlike essence around the competitive lumberjacking, but there's so much of it that the story going on around the flying chips and ominous music -- hinged on bets being placed on a matchup between aizcolari, or pro lumberjacks, who are de-facto representatives of the warring families -- loses its way in the process. Even the downhearted and forlorn gazes of renowned Spanish actress Ana Torrent cannot fully elevate the dramatic lethargy.

Medem's usage of the same actor to represent different generations of the Igribuel family at different periods doesn't help with the lack of clarity in Vacas, though it does accentuate the ethereal atmosphere that the director hopes to capture. This is an artistic choice instead of one born of necessity, evidenced in how the camera lingers on Carmelo Gomez's sharp jaw and longing eyes, and it does add a compelling element of wistfulness once the different iterations of his characters enter scenes at alternating periods. Whether Gomez's recurrent presence strengthens either the drama or the mysteries lying underneath is debatable, but it does add emphasis to the almost cyclical nature of the relationships amongst the rival families, showcasing how certain things change and other things remain the same with the passage of time. Emma Suarez's performance eventually provides enough of a tender, resonant anchor for the film's objectives involving complicated sentiments between family members, accenting the emotions of the story's more obscure and interpretive pathways.

Like many first-time efforts, Julio Medem throws a few too many thematic elements at the wall in hopes that they'll stick, from post-trauma psychosis to the normalization of taboo family interactions and the impact that historical civil warfare had upon regions in the Basques … all observed by revolving cows. Despite the consistency of its moody aesthetics, Vacas struggles to combine these ideas into a unified vision, instead allowing them to exist as separate complicated facets of the family rivalry. Medem's Lynchian enigmas involving a hollowed-out treetrunk and the significance of the cows do spur the imagination, butthey come across as esoteric creations with a bottomless pit of interpretations because of the eclectic nature of the director's other aspirations. Once the sawdust settles, Vacas works best when viewed as a compelling, impressionistic experiment that chips away at its ruminations as more of a curiosity than something more, a medley of provocative elements that'll resurface in Medem's later, better exotic creations.

Video and Audio:

A rarity from Spain, Vacas arrives on Blu-ray with a batch of Julio Medem's other films from Olive, slightly expanding its aspect ratio to 1.78:1 in its 1080p AVC transfer. Considering the vintage, Red Squirrel was quite an impressive offering from Medem's catalog and only a year younger than Vacas, so it's kind of a bummer to see this one not rising to quite the same quality (even if Red Squirrel's more well-known and accessible). There's a good amount of print speckling and image jittering throughout, and fine detail isn't reliably strong, shifting from admirably crisp for its age to mildly flat and blurred. Hair, chipped bark, textured boards used for painting, and woodgrain offer some tighter clarity in spots, which do give it tastes of high-definition beauty. For the most part, color shades are reputable and strong throughout, from the deep woodsy greens to softer creams and tans of the lumber and healthy flesh tones. The stability and print damage may chop it down a few notches, but Vacas still stands upright on Blu-ray.

The Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track has some interesting components to it, from the hacking sound of a hatchet going into wood to the ominous bass responses in the scoring, but the small scale of Vacas also translates to an uncomplicated sonic design as well. Dialogue is preserved fairly well: clear, wispy, and with some midrange response that alternates from overly rich to tight and natural. Some slight sound effects creep into the soundtrack, from the rushing of wind to the smacking of cow droppings onto the ground, which have a clean organic presence to ‘em. The music sounds fantastic, fluctuating in tempo and tenor while never dominating the scant sound effects, ranging from unique percussion to gentle piano with delicate shifts in resonance. The English subs are grammatically solid, too.

Special Features:


Final Thoughts:

Fans of Julio Medem and obscure, esoteric, and somewhat directionless puzzle-box dramas from the arthouse sector will find plenty to enjoy in Vacas, the director's first effort. Combining historical context with provocative themes build around rivaling families through the late-1800s and early-1900s in the Basque region of Spain, the film manages to combine professional speed lumberjacking, civil warfare, psychotic elderly painters, mystical bottomless pits and shifty-looking cows in creation of its dramatic conflicts and low-key enigmas. It's a uniquely compelling mixture of puzzle pieces that certainly generate a medley of moods, yet their thought-probing natures don't quite fit together into a consistent image, seeming like Medem wanted to challenge and unsettle his audience in various ways regardless of their uniformity. It's a unique experience, and one worth seeing, but not exactly a hidden gem. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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