Common sense suggests that the present may not be ideal, but it’s at least better than the past, and the future holds even greater potential. But what if our understanding of the past is limited or incomplete? What if the notion of a “better future” is merely a fantastic construct we uphold to endure present challenges? Glancing in the direction of the past can be dismissed as mere nostalgia, but if done in awareness of current struggles, a backward look can perhaps offer some answers. Or better yet, unlock a unique horizon of existence. These are the possibilities that director Fermín Sales enables in The Maestrat on Film, through picturesque, cryptic, and sometimes even harsh scenes.
By carefully assembled footage rescued from almost forgotten archives, Sales navigates us through early 20th-century Spain, where owning a film camera was rather improbable. Different chapters, with their bucolic atmosphere, open up to the simple yet fascinating rural quotidian: Life, Territory, Tradition, Phantoms, Ritual, and Work.
Details reveal the ancient modes of human existence, when the bedrock of social reproduction lay within the public sphere, and the individual was fully integrated into the community. As a result, collective life weaves itself into every action; food production, cooking, eating, singing, and dancing are all shared experiences. Agriculture and rituals involve everyone and vice versa: people’s daily routines are intimately tied to the land. Inevitably, the seasons dictate such rhythms, tapping into the pulse of nature.
At that time, more than 70% of Spain’s population was rural, and the act of slaughtering a pig in the street was commonplace. Yet, the film presents a curious eye on a mission that no one understands. People often stare directly at the camera, providing breaking points in narration, in the smooth idea of spectatorship. Who are they looking at, one may ask? Is it the person with the camera or us, the audience? “Who decided to embark on a mission to immortalise the people?”, asks Sales. In this way, capturing fleeting moments of existence, seemingly for no purpose whatsoever, preserves and perpetuates cultural richness.
Today, the image of a dead pig spread on a table in the street while a group of men gather around to clean and skin it may feel foreign. But in The Maestrat on Film, this sequence unfolds somewhat naturally. Then, women take over to squash the minced meat, filling the pig’s intestines with it. As harsh as this may seem, this moment represents one of the ancient culinary traditions in Spain: the making of el chorizo (the Spanish sausage). Even now, pigs still get killed, and their parts are conserved or cooked; the only difference is that these steps have been industrialised. Today, most of it takes place behind closed doors, in factories and slaughterhouses where standardised processes and machines have replaced traditions and communities.
What follows in the film is a captivating collection of footage spanning between the intimate and the communal; from a family’s life to the collective rituals marking the end of a season and the beginning of another cycle. The shapes and forms of these rituals become the ultimate expressions of a territory’s cultural landscape and collective subjectivities. In his film, Sales integrates some of his homeland’s most emblematic cultural traditions: a catholic rite where a virgin is taken out to the streets, praised with chants, and a furious bull chase in the narrow streets of a village.
The vastness of the territory already allows unobstructed views for an amateur filmmaker to capture a wide sky and the rooftops of a tranquil town. As the festivities wind down and the streets gradually empty out, the same camera focuses on the image of a meeting. A pig adorned with jingling bells in an alleyway sees a donkey carrying firewood. Beyond the town lies the open countryside, and when winter arrives, thin layers of soft snow cover the grasslands, bringing boundless joy to a single child. A camera is always there, as a witness in all these small moments. As a curious eye and companion, its secretive presence presents the question of what is to exist. The Spanish territory acquires a meaning beyond material objectivisation; it is the ground of one’s roots, a rich source of belonging, a collection of beloved memories.
In the work of Fermín Sales, such bucolic aesthetics are compelling and often allude to an enigmatic and distant past. It’s a past where work and ritual are inseparable forms of joy. Working the land is a celebration of the soil, its fertility and humidity; once the land has been cultivated, one must pray for good weather, so there is enough rain for the plants. The harvest will surely require hard work and reverence if the rainy season is good. Wheat and grapes are harvested; bread and wine are made and shared. One sings and dances until exhaustion and then rests for the next season. The cycle of labour rituals was repeated over and over again until war and modernity overtook rural Spain.
“Any of these people could be me,” says Sales. This recognition underscores a sense of continuity nourished by cultural memory; a memory that reclaims the past and a way of life based on simplicity, collectivity, rituals, and territory. By the end of his film, the director undeniably transcends temporal boundaries, bridging the gap between our present reality and other forms of existence where joy means good rainy season, bread, wine, and music in a collective life. May we all, too, recognise the significance of preserving traditions and cherishing communal life, once gifted with these glimpses from a distant time and place.
This text was developed during the European Workshop for Film Criticism #1—a tandem workshop set during Filmfest Dresden and Vienna Shorts—and edited by tutor Ricardo Brunn.
The European Workshop for Film Criticism is a collaboration of the European Network for Film Discourse (The END) and Talking Shorts, with the support of the Creative Europe MEDIA programme.