Close to 100 falcons swarm in a gargantuan, high-ceilinged warehouse. Two men wearing thawbs (the traditional Arab garb consisting of a white headpiece and robe) slowly walk the perimeters of the room, spreading seed for the hungry birds. The score (from Lorenzo Senni and Francesco Fantini) uses woodwind, synthesizer, and xylophone in a manner cheekily reminiscent of the swelling, dramatic strings in the scores of film composer Bernard Herrmann, a frequent collaborator of Albert Hitchcock who served as sound consultant on The Birds. As more food hits the ground, many of the falcons land until only a few flutter around the emptying indoor airspace. The scene stretches over three minutes of wordless action, men feeding and falcons being fed.
This pure cinema — the reliance on juxtaposed moving images and little else to convey meaning — is typical of Italian director Yuri Ancarani’s documentary The Challenge, screening this week at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center as a part of the annual New Directors/New Films series. Composed primarily of long, contemplative shots, the film waits 18 minutes into its 70-minute run time to introduce dialogue. Even when the characters — wealthy Qatari sheikhs obsessed with practicing falconry — do speak, the dialogue is not always of much consequence to the plot, typically an observation or an aside between two individuals. In the style of directors Bill and Turner Ross (Western, Contemporary Color), Ancarani’s camera wanders around the edges of action and focuses its attention alternately on the action or the periphery, whichever is most engaging in that moment. This roving focus results in a film that amounts to a series of short vignettes about this subculture, detailing the lives of the men and their relationships with their falcons in the lead-up to a falconry competition. This impressionism makes for a beautifully lensed documentary.
Opulence and excess are the lifeblood of The Challenge, most evident in how the competitors travel from their urban homes to the desert competition. One group of falconers roams the sands in a massive caravan of trucks, Jeeps, and SUVs. Another group rides the streets on a fleet of motorcycles with a golden bike riding point. A black Lamborghini and a spotted jungle cat are the prized possessions of one subject, and he uses the luxury automobile to bring the pet as his plus one.
The falcons are the most exalted of the men’s possessions. We see a falcon auction being streamed to a flat-screen television in an ornate salon. Two of the aspiring falconers sit on a couch while one of them bids via proxy, telephone strapped to his ear. As the duo watches the auction, they coldly comment on the attributes of the bird up for sale (“nice face,” “good legs”) as if it were inanimate. Viewers might experience a pang of outrage that the falcon in question eventually sells for $24,000, but Ancarani avoids passing judgement. The film’s free-floating framing helps the director present this world of unbridled materialism without imposing any particular perspective on the follies of the idle rich, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that — aside from a shot of competitors praying toward Mecca — we are given no insights into these men’s lives beyond their love of falconry.
The director also blunts the potentially inflammatory impact of this type of conspicuous consumption by showing moments of camaraderie between man and beast. The aforementioned Lamborghini owner shows great affection toward his big cat, reaching over to the passenger’s seat while driving to stroke its furry cheek. Later, in a room full of gold-hued, plush couches and chairs replete with gilded molding, we see a man looking at his phone while a falcon perches on his left arm. The falcon bucks forward and backward and lifts its tail; the pair exchange a knowing glance, and the man moves the bird away to defecate. Even a crude moment like this can be heartwarming when it evinces such affection.
While the film’s visuals are striking throughout, they become truly transcendent during the climactic competition. Once the contest starts, we hear the commentary of an announcer over footage of spectators listening to the play-by-play from the sidelines or from inside their cars. As the competition progresses, we see shots of the main event as relayed on a free-standing jumbotron screen installed in the desert. When the announcer’s tempo and volume escalate, the perspective moves to a camera attached to the competing bird’s head. This shaky vantage point shows the caravan of luxury SUVs and dots of human beings from the sky. The camera darts around the desert landscape, occasionally concentrating on one of the pigeons loosed by the falconers.
At the climax, most viewers will realize that they do not actually know the rules or objectives of falconry. The sport’s popularity has been in steady decline in the Western world since its peak in medieval times. Up to this point, Ancarani has made no effort to explain the rules, but we see them play out firsthand in the film’s final minutes. Using the perspective of the falcon to present the action of falconry to an audience for the first time makes for a breathtaking ending full of graphic glory.
For film lovers curious about this unique activity and subculture of the super-wealthy, be warned: a major challenge in The Challenge is staying awake in the first half of the film. The paucity of dialogue and strict reliance on leisurely visuals might necessitate some caffeine before a screening. The final competition, though, is a visceral portrayal of a rarely seen experience, meriting the big screen afforded to such cutting edge work at New Directors/New Films.
The Challenge screens March 16 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and March 19 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side, Manhattan) as part of the New Directors/New Films series.