Christmas Break starts today, and I spent the opening weekend visiting my girlfriend in Athens, Georgia. We spent a lot of time on the couch; naturally, we got in some movies.
One of them really stuck with me: the 2018 Spanish film The Skin of the Wolf, or Bajo la piel de lobo. It is a Spanish language film, but there is very little dialogue, so there are not many subtitles to read. Indeed, much of the storytelling is visual, and the story is, in part, about the perils of not communicating.
The flick (currently on Netflix) is about a lonely mountain hermit who lives in a ghost town in rural Spain. He lives his life alone, aside from his goats and chickens, and makes money killing wolves and selling their pelts to the town at the base of the mountain.
The hunter travels to town after a harsh winter to sell pelts. His friend in town, the tavern keeper, suggests he consider getting a wife to live on the mountain with him—and to give him a son. The hunter stops by the mill, where he has relations with the miller’s daughter, who he marries and takes to the mountain.
The miller’s daughter does well on the mountain, but is sick and pregnant (apparently, not by the hunter, as we learn). The harsh conditions on the mountain and the woman’s illness end in her and her child’s deaths, causing the lonely hunter to destroy other graves in the ghost town’s small graveyard in a rage of grief.
The hunter returns to the town and demands the miller repay him for the money he gave for the daughter. The miller is unable to pay when the hunter comes back the following spring to collect payment, but offers his youngest daughter in lieu of payment.
The hunter agrees, and takes the reluctant girl to the inhospitable mountain. Unlike her older sister, the girl does not adapt well, and there is no connection between her and the hunter. Indeed, it could be that she believes the hunter is responsible for her sister’s death. The film leaves that open to interpretation—one of the qualities I appreciated in this flick—but I think it’s a possibility.
I don’t want to give too much more away, because this film is very good. Suffice it to say that the girl attempts to leave, while hurting the hunter in the process—but not in a violent altercation. She employs subtler means, and when the hunter saves the girl, he releases her to return to her father.
The movie is sorrowful, and a slow burn. The sense of isolation the hunter experiences is harrowing, although watching him endure a mountaintop blizzard during this frosty time of year seemed to enhance the mood of the film. Despite his gruff exterior and hard life, the hunter possesses a tender side: he cares for both of his wives when they are pregnant, and helps the younger daughter shoulder her heavy load on the long trip up the mountain.
The daughters are also sympathetic characters. The older sister’s death is truly heartbreaking, and even though the hunter treats her death as a business transaction with the miller, he is absolutely devastated when she and her child die. He asks no questions about the daughter carrying another man’s child, but instead builds a simple cradle.
That said, he has a brutish side. He views the younger daughter as, essentially, his property, and while he treats her well when she is pregnant, he forces himself on her, even though the two share no real connection.
The younger daughter is in a difficult situation. She does wrong to a man who, despite his flaws, is ultimately a good provider, abandoning him to a sickly death (possibly), but she is trapped alone on a mountaintop with someone she loathes.
The hunter is a man of few words, and one of the problems he and the younger daughter face is the lack of any real communication between them. When asked about the graves dug for the older sister and her child, the hunter simply says, “They’re not graves, their holes,” which upsets the younger daughter.
There’s also a line early in the film, when the tavern keeper suggests the hunter get a wife, after first suggesting he get a dog. The hunter says, “a woman is harder to tame.” That’s an excellent bit of foreshadowing, as the younger daughter, while not “wild,” does not make the best of her situation.
Granted, it’s a bad situation. My sympathies lie with the lonely, isolated hunter, who in the quest for companionship and family, ends up sick and alone. But the younger daughter is no villain, either.
My recommendation? Watch The Skin of the Wolf and decide for yourself. You won’t regret it.