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GIJÓN 2023

Review: Los últimos pastores


- In this sensorially rich documentary, Asturian director Samu Fuentes follows two brothers who uphold the dying tradition of shepherding in the mountains of Northern Spain

Review: Los últimos pastores

Mist and clouds hanging amidst the mountain peaks set the scene for Los últimos pastores, the second feature-length documentary by Asturian filmmaker Samu Fuentes. Even with his previous project, The Skin of the Wolf [+see also:
interview: Samu Fuentes
film profile
, which was a fiction film that played at Gijón (aka FICX) in 2017, the director utilised silences and mood to convey the sensorial feeling of a cinematic world, so it’s no wonder that the long takes of a documentary about shepherds feels so ethereal. Following its world premiere in FICX’s Retueyos Competition, Los últimos pastores won the RTPA Award for Best Asturian Feature Film (see the news).

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Brothers Manolo and Fernando have spent their whole lives up in the hills of the Picos de Europa (part of the Cantabrian Mountains in Northern Spain), following in the footsteps of shepherds’ traditions dating back more than 5,000 years. Fuentes trekked up the Majada de Tordin (1,211 metres, as per the subtitles) to film their daily life in the summer, and descended through the pastures of Vierru (680 metres) when winter came, knowing full well that this ritual of back and forth is what life consists of for the two septuagenarians. Alejo Sabugo’s camera does its best to capture nature’s towering beauty in majestic, wider-than-wide shots and long, silent takes: goats grazing and the outline of a mountain in the background.

Considering the Mier brothers sold their last sheep a year prior to the events depicted here, one may wonder whether they are still shepherds. Since they were 13 years old, they have been one thing, so they don’t know how to be anything else. There are cows, but no one to milk them. There is almost nobody to sell the cheese to. They make bread for themselves, carve their own spoons, rear chickens and have a cat named Linda. Some days are long, some days are short; time exists only in the beauty of its passing, for sunrises and sunsets are equally mesmerising, seen from up high. Between the two locations, the environment is different because of the altitude, but the colours and the air vary, too, as seen in a different light. The film’s visuals are sublime and varied, capturing the countless nuances of a late-summer sky.

The tranquil world up on the Picos de Europa is not just idyllic; it’s also strangely melancholic. Perhaps it’s their age and their tendency to reminisce, but Manolo and Fernando often talk about the past as if it were a different world. How it was when they were children seems like a paradise lost, and now “there’s no one left to be taught [shepherding]”, they remark. For all the swelling scores, violins and trembling percussion that frame the endless landscape, Los últimos pastores is, by design, an elegy. The number of shepherds dwindles year after year, and the film warns us of an upcoming extinction. As another end for the world as we know it approaches, the last custodians of a dying breed stand strong and laugh about it: Samu Fuentes, paradoxically, has given us a divine comedy.

Los últimos pastores is a Spanish production staged by Asturian outfit Báltico and Madrid-based Wanda Films.

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