As Bestas (The Beasts): beneath our human skin | Review

The roof of a run-down, dilapidated wooden house peeks above the tall grass of a meadow.

It has more talk than action, yet taut, true-life tale The Beasts burns with a resentment that’s tough to stomach, and harder to turn away from.

The trouble starts when French couple Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs) move to a beautiful but decaying hamlet in Galicia, Spain. They dream of farming and living simply, but Antoine’s decision to vote against a wind turbine proposal sets them on a very different path.

While city folk Antoine and Olga yearn to return to nature, the villagers want out of the gruelling existence they never chose. The wind farm was their chance of escape, only for Antoine – an outsider – to spoil things.

The fallout reeks of xenophobia and racism, of locals against foreigners, but it’s also about those with opportunity versus the excluded. If this reads like a Brexit parallel, the conflict reveals a subtler truth: freedom of movement is much easier when you’ve got the money to pay for it.

The Beasts begins a few months after the wind farm vote, pitching us into a febrile atmosphere of seething resentment. Brothers Xan and Lorenzo (Luis Zahera, Diego Anido) are caustic and ill-tempered towards Antonio, at first through pranks and insults, then bullying and intimidation.

Like animals marking their territory, they urinate on his furniture. Antoine retaliates by covertly filming them. They respond by destroying his crops. It’s a noose of no-good machismo that builds to an inevitable explosion. When it comes, the bang is all the more disturbing for its roots in real events.

Silvia R. Pontevedra’s 2015 EL PAÍS article reveals the true story that inspired The Beasts (and the film’s ending).

True horror

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s film fictionalises events that took place between the end of the 1990s and 2010.

Then, it was a Dutch couple, Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool, who had moved to Galicia from the Netherlands. Rather than a wind farm, they fell out with locals over land-grazing rights and sustainability, minor disagreements that escalated from resentment into rage.

Whether film or fiction, there are obvious parallels with Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah’s film about the horrors an American couple face in rural England. There, as in The Beasts and The Silence of the Lambs, beastliness is another face of masculinity. In fact, it’s a common theme across storytelling: we wear human masks, but are we any better than animals?

This kind of horror is embedded in urban notions of rural life as backwards – even inbred or mentally deficient – and fears of the unknown. The Beasts offers a more measured examination, however. It situates the conflict in an external trigger – the wind farm – while revealing the complexity of social and economic exclusion, horrors rarely named on the big screen.

The Beasts is a film of two halves, though, and two stories. The first, a story about men, burns with explosive energy. The second, like God’s Creatures, shows us the women who live with and through such destruction. It’s much quieter, but just as shocking and memorable for it.

Olga’s response to the terrors that come to the farm – as per Margo Pool’s – is the other side of endless territorial conflict. Beneath our masks and human skin, we can be more than beasts.

The Beasts / As Bestas (2022), directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen

This film screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2023

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Picture credit: Sies Kranen