A pleasantly paced, observational documentary about a family of poetic Argentinean goatherders gratifies the eyes and soothes the soul.
Is it worth $10? Yes
In their perfect honesty, droves of goats and sheep, sharply urged ahead on a dirt path by a pair of snap-happy dogs, overtake the frame in the opening shot of the Argentinean documentary “Arreo.” The dust kicked up by prancing hooves temporarily obscures the ruggedly handsome panorama of rural Malargüe’s rolling hills. Director-cinematographer Tato Moreno’s film, as promised by this dynamic first sequence, often drifts easily into moments of Zen where nothing is lacking and everything thrives.
In this way and others, “Arreo” serves as a cool cocoon against the overheated political pollution of the United States today. Though the politics of “progress” don’t pardon even the peaceful, affable Eliseo Paradas clan of herdsmen, their way of life in the country endures. More than that, their hard work in the day and simple family time at night evoke mainly one thing: joyful contentment.
“Country people always have something to do,” says Eliseo, the family’s rhyming, singing patriarch, as he braids a reign for “the meanest horse [he] can find.” Horses and dogs are essential tools of the goatherding trade. Herders exhibit a brand of humility which can only be wrought by nature; an enviable combination of patience and ubiquitous industry.
The same can be said of Moreno’s film. With low-key craftsmanship, he shows us the lives and lands of these gauchos through striking photography in a carefully arranged assemblage. The variety of angles keeps things lively, but there’s no hurry. At any given time, his camera might be mounted on horseback, trailing the dusty herd, or nestled in a thorny embankment, languidly holding an upward angle on a gaucho descending a mountain pass.
The conflicts are of the everyday variety, if you’re a goatherder. A drive comes to a halt at a brook’s edge, when the trip decides to be stubborn. Eliseo feels he’s selling his livestock too cheaply for the sweat he’s put in. (Sharing an impromptu poem seems to make him feel better about it.) The ongoing stressors are lack of land ownership opportunities and the paved highways built on ancestral herding paths. “Soon there will be too much traffic,” and the drivers won’t want to share, says Eliseo.
The goats themselves, of course, are unconcerned with all of that, and they all but steal the “Arreo” show. We see that the kids require a degree of manipulation to keep things running smoothly. A dozen or so of them, days old, are gently tied together with rope like so many sausage links. When a gaucho drapes them onto a horse’s back, it could be the Malargüe equivalent of strapping your own kid’s soccer team into the minivan.
The animals’ charms win even the hardest hearts, and the goats—hams, it turns out—go a step further. They’re not averse to upstaging their fellows with a gonzo take in close-up. Ever nosy and always spilling fresh gossip from their long, waggling tongues.
So, “Arreo” is a gem of a naturalist film. Moreno’s painterly wide angles of mountainous vistas, with our characters often in the middle ground, satisfy as they ease your blood pressure downward. The pensive pace pleases.
One hopes the councilpersons at city hall will take Eliseo up on his offer to host them for a few days with the family. The good-natured herdsmen, their poems, songs, and what should be their land add up to—at the very least—an antidote to every urban venom.
Andres Solar reviews new fare with an emphasis on art house and indie for Punch Drunk Movies. He feels that Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyer’s Club” , “Wild” ) is highly overrated, and that David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche” , “Joe” ) is highly underrated.