Being a shepherd is a lot more encompassing than simply looking after sheep. A shepherd represents being close with nature, guiding, protecting, and taking care of others before yourself. It is therefore no happy accident that director László Illés ('The Basement') opts to explore this true story that not only uses a shepherd as his central character, but also names his film after such a profession.
Set in the rural and isolated countryside of Hungary in 1944, 'The Shepherd' opens on an elderly man (Székely B. Miklós), who meanders through his morning routine before taking his sheep out for the day. The environment is cold, desolate and still, and already audiences can feel the man's isolation and loneliness. However, when he hears loud gunfire and commotion off in the distance, he runs towards the expansive woods, and although it invites great personal danger, he tries to save a Jewish woman he finds wounded on the ground.
Illés constructs an absolutely stunning yet unflinching film that portrays the impact war has on everyday life. It is said that in the darkest parts of life is we discover the most about ourselves, and Illés certainly doesn't shy away from said darkest avenues. With intense scenes of rape and murder, 'The Shepherd' has some of the rawest and painful images on the horrors of war I have seen in film.
What's more, this film is strung together with lots of long, single takes - moulding an altogether difficult yet powerful snapshot of war. The camera technique deserves a mention, with these long takes creating a film with a look that far exceeds its lowly budget, and making audiences feel the gravity of what a single day can be. It's claustrophobic when it wants to be, and meditative when it needs to be. Illés always has the camera within the action and next to his characters, slowly moving with them to highlight all their feelings and reactions. Before you ask, no - it could not be further away from a gimmick, rather maintaining the minimalist focus of the film, and doesn't let audiences dismiss the cruelties.
The long and still shots of the shepherd getting ready in the morning are then wonderfully contrasted the long takes of the Jewish men and women trying to escape through the forest. It aids Illés' idea to show the impact that war has on everyday life, and from the perspective of an everyday solitary man. What audiences see at the beginning of the film is a peek into this man's life, but that same perspective is challenged as the film progresses.
'The Shepherd' has won many awards on the festival circuit - and it is easy to see why. Nothing is wasted in this film, with everything coming together neatly to form a crescendo in the final act. Images and actions that may seem pointless or a waste of time at first all have a role to play.
These long takes create a film with a look that far exceeds its lowly budget, and make audiences feel the gravity of what a single day can be.
There is one sequence which Illés chooses to place out of time, deciding to show it as a flashback instead. I can see why he was tempted to do this, as it allows the film's rhythm to gather momentum, but personally I found it distracting and unnecessary. He should have had more confidence in his script to allow for a linear story, and it caused me to keep asking myself if we were being shown something out of order again.
The blurbs of this film will reveal far too much of the plot, and prevent audiences from experiencing the shocks at the film's conclusion. If you can go in knowing nothing of the plot - that would serve you best. However, one thing that remains constant in the film's promotion is that Illés dedicates this film to the everyday unsung heroes - and nothing can take that away.
Illés' desired message of the film that even in the darkest places light can be found is not necessarily the main takeaway I got from this viewing. That message is an important one, certainly, but in truth, 'The Shepherd' is less about what it wants to say, and more about the deep guttural feeling you have by the end of it, thanks mainly to the precision of the craft.
'The Shepherd' is brutal, honest, painful and creatively stunning. Focusing a war story on a lonely shepherd in a desolate rural town with minimal dialogue should not make for captivating viewing, but it certainly does. I was absolutely enchanted by the technical achievements, which in isolation would be enough reason to recommend this film, but when working with the nature of this story, create a powerful - if not horrific - story of war.