by Nicholas Vroman

Fauna, second feature film by Pau Faus, opens with opening shots of an Arcadian landscape, a few classic nature doc scenes – a heron, some ducks – then on to a shot of tree branches, dappled by sunlight. Cut to Valerio, a shepherd and his dog Brisa taking a break in a sylvan glade. The sound of a bleating lamb breaks the moment. The poor little fellow is trapped in large disused concrete trough hidden in overgrown vegetation. A simple, yet cogent juxtaposition of human detritus left in what is ostensibly a natural landscape. Valerio comes to the rescue, cutting through the brush, climbing down into the trough and helping the lamb out. Next, we see the shepherd and his flock traversing the forested landscape in scenes right out of Millet paintings. Cut to him and the flock descending down a ledge in a tight shot, where they disappear out of the frame into some obscure dry and dusty netherworld. They end up in a field, resting and grazing, where the camera zooms slowly back, ala Barry Lyndon, pulling back and back into a pristine laboratory with two hazmat-ed space-suited scientists intently look through microscopes and study samples, ignoring the green landscape behind them, framed by the large window that defines the boundary of their lab and the natural world.

Thus begins Pau Faus’ unsettling exploration of our (humans, that is) complex relationship with the natural world, animals in particular. The juxtaposition of Valerio’s world (introduced by a romanticized lens, traversing into the hard physical and cold economic realities of his disappearing profession) and the sterile confines of a scientific institution, CReSA/Animal Health Research Center (The scenes in the lab are shot with the clinical austerity that the institution demands, often in symmetrical framing that could be out of 2001: A Space Odyssey), where researchers are working to unlock the secrets of and find the cure for Corona virus through animal testing is where Faus’ build a mosaic of scenes and images in search of a truth. That very truth illustrating the Georges Bataille quote that opens the film – “I believe that truth has only one face: that of violent contradiction.”

Faus never shows the images of that violence. Though it becomes the recurring theme of the film. It is implied and invoked through the poetry of his documentation.

Valerio is a simple man full of contradictions. He is presented in all his pastoral glory, tending carefully to his flock, walking through beautiful landscapes, spending his days in symbiosis with nature. Yet he knows between his health and his age, he is not long for shepherding. He learns that his health is getting worse. He constantly rubs his aching hands. He is dependent on a host of pills and painkillers, the very existence of which may have come from the laboratory plopped into the landscape where he walks with his sheep. As a child he dreamt of being an astronaut. He keeps a parrot, caged, in his house. The animal world is never far from him. He is quiet and taciturn with his wife, who seems to be playing the video game Sheep on her tablet whenever he comes home. Yet when they talk, they talk simply and profoundly about their current lives, their problems and about their love, their memories and their pleasures in life. Their openness and naturalness is revelatory. Faus said that with some initial reticence, they opened up their lives to him and his crew, which gives heart and soul – and voices – to this filmic exploration. He takes his flock to an industrialized dairy, where he attaches teat cups to the sheep’s’ udders and machines pump milk from them. A contemporary dairy is not a whole lot different than a scientific lab. He fits into this industrial facility quietly and without question. His relationship with the animals in his care is not without compassion, but also with being dispassionately aware of the fact that these creatures are part and parcel of his livelihood. And that life is becoming unsupportable because of his diminishing physical condition and the economic reality that his occupation is becoming redundant. And when it comes to that “truth,” sheep become goods.

The lab shows a more abstract view of humanity’s relationship with animals. To enter here is to disavow the outside/natural world. The place is obsessive about keeping sterile. Early on we see a researcher stripping herself of clothes, jewelry, whatever to go through an elaborate ritual of sterilization, finally emerging enrobed in generic scrubs and mask. Two women, who keep the place clean, are not unlike the dishwashers (minus the Down syndrome) in von Trier’s The Kingdom, not only talking about their lives outside of the facility, but also seem to know everything going on within. One, doing her rounds of keeping the halls spotless, finds an intruder, a tiny insect that causes a tiz around the impregnability of the place to the outside world. This sends the director of the lab and assistant on a recurrent and comic task of inspecting and blowing smoke through every crack in the walls, foundation and windowsills to see where this invader could have gotten in. It’s determined that the bug probably entered along with some animal that was brought in for experimentation. The entrance of animals to the facility is presented in a darkly comic series of recurring scenes. The first time, a freight elevator with air locks and too many buttons opens to reveal a bunch of kid goats that are coaxed down a generic hall with several closed doors where they are led into the only door that’s open. Later, two giant hogs are given a similar treatment. The doors open. The resistant creatures are prodded and pushed out of the elevator and herded into another door. Later, some little piglets arrive. Still later, ducks! And finally, what appear to be the last of Valerio’s flock, some little black lambs. The thing to remember is that none of these animals will leave the facility alive.

The idea that the lab, where the study of human and other animal pathogens, must be totally cut off from the world where these things exist brings up just one example of Bataille’s contradictions. The multiple contradictions of Valerio’s existence, the science lab’s with its very human crew and its obsession with control, Brisa the dog dependent on and working for Valerio, sheep doing their sheepish thing – grazing, being milked and shorn, the panoply of human/animal interactions are illustrated with both clarity and enigma in Fauna.

Fauna ends with shots of the landscape, natural and with encroachments of human industry, freeways, places where Valerio and his flock inhabited, now empty. The film is less an indictment of human hegemony or folly, more of an illustration of what our Arcadian dreams have become.

Direction: Pau Faus
Screenplay: Sergi Cameron, Pau Faus, Júlia R. Aymar
Editing: Júlia R. Aymar
Music: Israel Marco, Quim Ramos
Cinematography: Carlota Serarols
Sound: Diego Pedragosa
Producer: Sergi Cameron
Spain, 2023, 74 min