José, Paco and Luis – three friends who share a common history – get together for a day of rabbit hunting and invite Enrique, Paco’s brother-in-law, to join. The land on which they hunt, owned by José but maintained by his tenant Juan, was the site of many deaths during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) – a fact that gradually is revealed to both the unsuspecting Enrique and the audience. As the day’s hunting events progress, tensions swell, eventually culminating in a human massacre. Of the four hunters the only one to survive is Enrique.
Heralded as one of the greatest films ever to have been made about the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and its residual effects on a politically and culturally traumatised post-war society, Carlos Saura’s third feature-length film, La caza (The Hunt, 1965), remains a triumph of modern cinema. Often characterised as a psychological thriller about fratricide, the film paints an intensely intimate, at times claustrophobic, portrait of masculinity, violence and repression, which unfolds through a starkly minimalist narrative centred on four men who spend a day together rabbit hunting on a former Civil War battlefield.
Indeed, La caza’s battlefield plays a crucial role in the film’s visual economy, wherein it is both framed as the oppressive backdrop to the main action and foregrounded through numerous long shots and close-ups as a wounded body. A series of establishing shots (long shots and aerial views) at the film’s onset show the hunters descending into the vast and hollowed subterranean valley, but the camera undercuts human presence in favour of highlighting the barren, lifeless landscape as an additional protagonist. This desert valley is, of course, reminiscent of the futuristic, post-apocalyptic descriptions in Luis’s science fiction novel El quinto planeta (‘the fifth planet’), where the post-human environment appears contaminated from a distance. These shots, in turn, are counterbalanced with medium and close-up shots that bring into sharp focus the scorched, pock-marked, almost lunar-like hunting grounds, whose holes and crevices subtly reveal bullet holes and secret bunkers – ‘open wounds’ leftover from the war. With the aid of Luis Cuadrado’s spectacular photography, the camera captures these remnants of war not as extraterrestrial but as naturalised elements embedded in the landscape. These remains constitute spectral evidence of a collective national history that, on the one hand, the land retains and suppresses, and on the other hand, it accumulates and exposes over time. In the end, the film poignantly illustrates that the emergence of these historical traces wields a certain force or violence that haunts the present.
As the landscape gradually gains significance throughout La caza’s mise en scène, shifting from symbolic stage to historical site, its terrain not only embodies but also begins to exude the same tensions, anxieties, and disease that plague the protagonists. In this regard, Saura’s work could be categorised as a film of and about embodiment, and specifically how place embodies time and history. In fact, one of the most unique if not radical components of the film is the way it draws on landscape not just as a reflective surface that mirrors the conditions of the post-war era, but also as a container in which the time of the present is itself conditioned, and to some degree inflicted, by other temporalities. In this regard, landscape becomes an event – a dynamic and wavering entity that settles and unsettles film subject and viewer alike, unveiling a matrix of entangled temporalities within the singular space of the film’s diegesis and by extension the space of the screen. This is perhaps why a majority of La caza’s narrative violence emanates from the natural setting: the infernal heat and relentlessly oppressive sunlight, as well as the overall sensations of enclosure and suffocation that are evoked in the oscillation between images of the open, expansive range of the grounds and the steep, severe walls of the surrounding hillsides.
But from the ‘event of landscape’, the violence that manifests in La caza is neither depicted in a straightforward manner nor made overtly graphic until the end. Even though tensions among the hunters escalate throughout, it is not until the final scene of human massacre that the spectator is presented with the occasion to witness, as the frightened young Enrique does, an explosion of violent and fatalistic behaviour that is not only unambiguous, but also sudden and shocking. This is not to suggest that the film overall fails to treat violence as one of its central thematic concerns, which of course it does. Rather, it is important to note that while violence is central to the film – a central if silent actor – then it is neither explicit nor excessive, but instead gradually unravels through various layers of intensity.
Next to films in which violence is immediate and perhaps particularly gruesome, gory and/or bloody, such as those of American director Sam Peckinpah (1925–84), who is rumoured to have undergone a transformative experience upon viewing La caza that later inspired him to make The Wild Bunch (1969), Saura’s deliberately slow-paced, methodical exploration into the evolution of violence, by contrast, is more suggestive and implicit. A good example of this is the first hunting sequence, which is performed as a routine military operation and hints at what some scholars have argued is the film’s insistence on ritualised and/or fetishised forms of violence. As the four men march over the uneven terrain, weapons in hand, it is through a series of voiceovers that the spectator is given a window into their isolation, fears and internal anxieties. But what begins as seemingly innocuous observations steadily swells (José is nervous and exhausted from the sweltering heat, Paco dreads becoming ‘crippled’ and Enrique is troubled by the uncanny feeling of having ‘been there before’). These interior monologues, though distinct in content, reach a point of convergence that anticipates the aggressive exchanges that are really taking place, and for which the rabbit hunt is merely a subtext. Underscoring this point further, once a rabbit is spotted and the shooting begins, shots of the hunters are not crosscut with images of their supposed prey, but with images of each other, creating the editing illusion of a human ‘crossfire’ that binds these men together in a visual display of mutual antagonism as they ‘aim’ at one another. Of course, the hunt sequence is only the first in a chain of actions that crescendo in anticipation of the final ‘unfriendly fire’ that will end in tragedy. Within this chain, Saura effectively portrays the overwhelming sense of anguish among the men, which can be seen as a kind of slow death methodically structured into every detail and made all the more palpable through the slow deterioration and alienating effects of the land, as well as by the musical score, which vacillates between silence and the funereal drum beats of a military march.
Within the spatial and temporal dynamics of what could be called La caza’s ‘slow-moving’ violence, the magnified feelings of entrapment are equally prevalent. In fact, these sensations give rise to the general tone of dis-ease or discomfort underlying the film’s narrative. The concept of disease, along with its many allusions to contamination, quarantine, wounds, pain, and death, occupies a significant amount of screen time. For disease is closely linked not only to the heat, but also to physical ailments and mental states: José’s chronic stomach pains and feelings of failure, Juan’s bad leg, his bedridden mother, Paco’s paranoia and regret, Luis’s alcoholism, and last but not least Enrique’s boyish innocence, which socially exiles him from the group. All of these examples, of course, find a narrative parallel in the myxomatosis infestation that has plagued the rabbits, a visible disease that causes death by paralysis, and which at one point Enrique describes as ‘monstrous’.
To date, the allegorical readings of La caza are abundant. While the rabbits are often read as a metaphor for a population of sickly, devastated Spaniards, the campsite is associated with Spain, and the hunters are usually equated with the impoverishment of Franco’s ultimately self-defeating legacy. From these interpretations, have risen a number of compelling readings that analyse intergenerational conflict, intragenerational difference, the theme of ageing, animalisation and dehumanisation, the role of technology and apparatuses, visibility and blindness, the relationship between censorship and self-censorship, and the notion of intertextuality.