Italian cinema's pursuit of reality has always been ambiguous. The country invented the neorealist movement, but how realistic can fiction film be? Things got still more questionable with the advent of Mondo movies, ostensible documentaries widely assumed to include scripted or otherwise "fake" footage. All art tells us something about the world -- at the furthest remove, it tells us what someone thinks about the world, or what someone assumes that others believe. Francesco Rosi's bullfighting drama gets you to thinking about such things. It's more than a film about bullfighting -- Budd Boetticher's Arruza is arguably the last word on the subject as a subject unto itself. Rosi uses the career of a bullfighter to say something about poverty in Spain and the exploitation of the poor everywhere. But he wanted his movie to have unprecedented spectacular authenticity. Instead of casting a male idol or rising star of the moment, -- an Alain Delon or Franco Nero -- he hired a real star bullfighter, Miguel Mateo, aka Miguelin, to play a fictional bullfighter dubbed Miguelin. The idea was that he could film Miguelin close up and close in, actually in action in the ring, instead of using stunt doubles and process shots. I assume much of the footage is taken from live bullfights -- if so, then Miguelin is putting his life on the line as you watch. Like Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan, "no faking" is the rule and the selling point of the movie -- except for the actual moment of truth.
The fictional Miguel Romero leaves his rural village and his family's poor farm to make a living in the big city. In Rosi's unromantic vision, Romero is only ever in the bullfighting game for the money, and as soon as he strikes it rich he's thinking about quitting. After all, why take chances? Because there's money in it for someone else: an agent who programs Romero for a punishing schedule of fights in big cities and small towns. It becomes clear that the matadors are ultimately as dispensable as the bulls they kill. Exploitation rather than moral corruption is the root of Romero's ruin. As in many a melodrama, he's seduced by an amoral female -- here a jet-setter played by the late Linda Christian -- but for Rosi that's just an episode, not a betrayal of anything. "The bull is sacred," someone says, and the film is bracketed with religious rites. But the overall, overwhelming impression is one of human sacrifice. The "moment of truth" for the film, toward which everything seems to build up, isn't the death of a bull but the death of a matador. Spoiler coming up....
So of course the entire rationale for the picture (from an exploitation standpoint) falls apart at the very end because Rosi is not about to get the real Miguelin killed, but he wants Miguel Romero to die. The result is as fake as you would expect, and while you don't want Rosi to trod the alleged path of some Mondo makers and stage real death for his camera, it still seems strange that this should be the literal moment of truth. Whether the film can survive that moment depends on whether you think Rosi has told enough truth by then.
Of course, you can enjoy Il momento as sheer spectacle -- not just for its actuality footage of bullfights but for the vibrant widescreen cinematography by a three-man team. The movie may be too beautiful sometimes -- the scenes in Romero's village are more thoroughly composed than the bullring scenes and the color creates a probably unwanted idyllic impression. The bullfighting is what it is, and Rosi films it unflinchingly. Some will understandably find it as repellent as any Mondo violence toward animals -- and Mondo Cane had already covered the topic. Some will find it thrilling, and that goes for the running-of-the-bulls footage, too, as human bodies go flying in that unwilled way that special effects still can't recreate. In the end, Rosi is in the same predicament as any Mondo-monger or exploitation expert. I don't doubt that he finds it all quite barbaric and cruel to man and bull alike. But he can't criticize it without showing all the things that have made bullfighting attractive for centuries. It still attracts spectators and participants. I read in the paper this morning about a matador who made a comeback this weekend mere months after getting an eye gored out by a bull. If you read such a story and wonder why, and actually want an answer, The Moment of Truth may have one for you.