July 13, 2004 -- “Tasio” tells a based-on-fact story of a way of life known by very few, that of a charcoal-maker and poacher living at the edge of the law and society in the Basque region of northern Spain. The movie is based on the life of Tasio Ochoa, a man who film director Montxo Armendáriz met while making a documentary about the charcoal makers (“Nafarroako ikazkinak,” 1981) of Navarre. Armendáriz, who is also from Navarre, felt a kinship to Tasio's fiercely independent spirit.
The film follows Tasio's life from youth to middle age (Patxi Bisquert plays Tasio as an adult). Tasio learned charcoal-making from his father, and decided at an early age he would not work for others. He would make his living on his own, making charcoal and by hunting and fishing. To make charcoal, the “carbonero” piles wood up into a great heap, about 12 feet high and 24 feet in diameter, and covers it with dirt. The wood is set afire so that it burns very slowly. The partial combustion process creates charcoal. Holes are poked into the soil to carefully control the rate of combustion. The fire requires frequent attention, such as climbing atop the heap and stoking the fire. The resulting charcoal is sold for use in domestic stoves. Making charcoal can be dangerous, as we see in one scene where a boy falls through the outer layer of the heap and is terribly burned. Sometimes there is a shortage of wood, which Tasio steals from the local preserve.
Charcoal production doesn't provide enough income to live on, so Tasio gets food and makes additional money by poaching wild game. Throughout the story, Tasio engages in a battle of wits with the local game warden, a neighbor, to continue his poaching in the local game preserve. The warden knows what Tasio is up to, but can't prove anything, because Tasio is so wily. Wealthy men can hunt here for a price, but Tasio refuses to work for them, chasing the game on foot, herding them into areas where they can be easily shot. He has his own hunting ethic. He won't over-hunt or over-fish an area, and he hunts in such a way that the animals have a chance to escape, if they are smart enough.
Tasio makes a marginal living through his various enterprises. He eventually marries a local woman and raises a daughter, both of whom participate in Tasio's poaching schemes. Tasio's stubborn independence does take a toll on his wife and him in a couple of the movie's key scenes. The movie gets at social issues only obliquely: the lack of adequate health care, overbearing civil authorities, employers and businessmen using their power to lord it over those at the bottom of the social order. The movie does not romanticize Tasio's harsh life. In fact, its tone is similar to that of a dispassionate documentary, but it does show a man living uncompromisingly, according to his own principles. In one scene, he confronts one of his suppliers and demands what is owed him. It is clear he will not back down, and he is not a man you would want to cross. In another scene, he shares a bottle of wine with his old opponent, the game warden. It is clear the two men, though on opposite sides of the law, respect each other.
The movie is beautifully filmed by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine. The scenes of the mountains and forests where Tasio makes his living are lovingly depicted. They are depicted in a way which shows their permanence in relation to the transient humans who wander this landscape. The glowing cinematography also shows the fondness that both Tasio and the film's director, Armendáriz, have for this part of Spain. This film effectively illuminates a little-known area and way of life, and touches on a number of universal themes at the same time. The English subtitles on the version of this film I saw (a 35mm print viewed July 12, 2004 at the Wyo Theatre in Laramie) had many words spelled phonetically, an indication of colloquial words used by the film's characters which are reportedly Spanish, with a strong Basque influence. Watching this film, it occurred to me that the lives of many people in the United States are not all that different from Tasio's, and the circumstances of the non-wealthy are becoming more like Tasio's all the time. This film rates a B.
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