The battles of tradition vs modernity, and man vs nature, are at the forefront of Salvatore Mereu’s 2022 film Bentu (Wind).
Following his layered, narrative-driven Assandira, also set in the changing agricultural landscape of Sardinia, Bentu is a more minimal neorealist drama following Raffaele, an elderly grain farmer, and the 10-year-old Angelino, as they prepare for the wheat harvest. The only music is diegetic, sung by the characters, and no artificial lighting, in this tale set insulated from society in the heart of the wheat fields.
Raffaele is preparing his grain, his livelihood and source of income, and waiting for the season of wind, to separate the wheat-grains from the chaff. An introductory note opening the film states that pre-machinery, whole communities dedicated their existence to wheat: the entire year preparing for and reaping the harvest, and then the cycle begins over again. Raffaele’s fellow farmers leave the fields, presumably to go back into town, but he stays, guarding over the crop his life is dictated by. His only link to the outside world is Angelino, his nephew (or great-nephew) who acts as messenger, bringing letters from Raffaele’s wife and routing milk and wheat back to her, as well as learning the ropes as an informal apprentice to the farmer. He’s still a little boy, but someday wants to ride Turtledove, the full-grown, untamed mare on the farm.
No specific time setting is given – likely the first half of the 20th century, as we know Raffaele’s son is serving in the military, and for a man of his age (perhaps seventies) the mechanical thresher is a disruptive, obnoxious competitor to his more traditional methods. Even within the frame, it’s a monstrous size, dwarfing the farmers by comparison. The others say the thresher separates the wheat-grain on its own, not requiring the wind as Raffaele does. It’s an industrial tool giving man dominion over nature, rather than depending upon it. As Raffaele says to Angelino, man and nature are “always at war.”
At long last, the wind does come, and Raffaele’s months of hard work have paid off. He asks Angelino to go fetch the horse, and insists the boy not ride it – but Angelino’s confidence gets the better of him, and he mounts Turtledove and rides it out of the barn. This whole scene is filmed to excruciating effect, with several tries of Angelino almost getting on the horse, crawling up the fence and leaning over to try to mount Turtledove, then finally making it.
The feeling of dread simmers away then stings back as tragedy strikes quickly, and quietly. It’s a stunning, pained ending, and all is still, leaving only the sway of the wheat in the wind. Nature reconquests man, in a time and place where the industrialization and commodification of the natural world are just beginning to rise.
Like Assandira, Bentu is another gut-punch from Salvatore Mereu. It’s a seemingly low-key story, requiring a bit of patience from its audience, to deliver a startling conclusion. The authentic, moving connection the film fosters is suddenly ripped apart.
Bentu is a nominee at the 2023 David di Donatello awards. Check out the full nominations list here!