The myxoma virus (MYXV) was used in Australia in 1950 to control, albeit temporarily, the overpopulation of the invasive European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). A different strand of the virus was released in France two years later, resulting in the drastic decline of European rabbits in the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe. The MYXV’s disease, myxomatosis, is a highly contagious and normally fatal infection in a rabbit species lacking resistance, such as the European rabbit. As myxomatosis was spreading across the European continent, Spain started to invest in nuclear energy. The use of myxomatosis as a bioweapon and the creation of nuclear energy capable of radioactive pollution are also at the core of Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura’s La caza (The Hunt, 1966). This article argues that The Hunt provides an important examination on extinction and biopolitics at both local and global levels through its portrayal of myxomatosis and radioactivity.
According to Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, hunting has been a major part of human activity since prehistory, and hunters have always been concerned with low numbers of game, an ingrained anxiety stretching back to the Paleolithic era. He also noted, however, that in modern time this anxiety has been exacerbated because of the myriad technologies that humans have devised to exterminate other forms of life: “It is now about an extreme and rapidly progressive scarcity. It is now about that there are less animals every day. It is now about a dramatic reality: that hunting disappears; that the hunting game agonizes; that soon humankind will have to stop being a hunter and that this outstanding form of happiness is at the brink of disappearing.”1 He envisioned hunting as an activity in which humans must willingly limit their technological resources to ensure that their game is not completely eradicated. People, he claimed, “could very easily and successfully annihilate most animal species, at least precisely those declared as hunting game. Far from doing this, humankind contains its destructive power, it limits and regulates it.”2 Rather than simply chasing and killing other animals, modern hunters are now constantly thinking about ways to preserve the species that they kill. Hunting is, then, an arrangement of programmatic death and survival, an orchestration in which the hunter safeguards the survival of prey to potentially kill it in the future. Concerns about extinction should therefore be of utmost importance to hunters because without game there would be nothing to kill in the Anthropocene. By tying together hunting and weapons of mass destruction, Ortega y Gasset signaled an ongoing discourse about ecological collapse and the changing human condition in the nuclear age.
This article focuses on Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura’s response to this very same discourse in his 1966 film La caza (The Hunt). Set during the decades after the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), the movie is mainly about the problems that Spain faced as a nation under Francisco Franco’s government. Its characters embody and bring forth pressing matters that their homeland was experiencing at the time, including economic development, postwar bourgeoise, anxious masculinities, ideological conflicts between generations, and unsolved crimes against certain populations. Most of the film’s criticism has centered on these major issues, on the censorship that Saura experienced, and on his critical representation of social groups that most benefited from the Francoist regime.3 Yet one dimension of The Hunt that remains to be seriously analyzed is its engagement with two major events that occurred in the mid-twentieth century: the proliferation of nuclear radioactivity and rabbit decimation. I argue that nuclear bombing and the sharp decline of the European rabbit population appear in the movie as related anthropogenic catastrophes, signaling both extinction and the management of populations across species lines. Radioactive contamination and myxomatosis frame the characters’ responses to one another and their prey as they formulate ways to organize and control human and nonhuman bodies. Rather than branding hunting as a leisurely occupation with no major repercussions, Saura reveals its biopolitical dimension beyond the human.
The movie’s plot centers on José (played by Ismael Merlo), Paco (Alfredo Mayo), Luis (José María Prada), and Enrique (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba), four men who decide to go hunting rabbits on a piece of land owned by José and supervised by his employee, Juan (Fernando Sánchez Polack). Their hunting activity leads them to a former battleground during the Civil War where José, Paco, and Luis previously fought on the Francoist side. As the plot is unveiled, we learn that José is in severe debt because of an imminent divorce. His main motivation for organizing this hunt was to borrow money from businessman Paco. José also invited Luis, a science fiction fan and alcoholic, while Paco invited his family member Enrique, the youngest man in the group. Juan and his niece, Carmen (Violeta García), bring ferrets with them to scare rabbits out of their burrows and into plain view where the men can shoot them at will. Luis, on his part, informs the other men about myxomatosis, a fatal disease in European rabbits that explains why some of the game that they find is dead or in very weak condition.
A darker side of the older men is revealed as the film progresses. They not only remember what they did during their time as soldiers but also ponder on the implications of hunting humans instead of rabbits. Under the scorching sun, a surreptitiously resentful dimension of their friendship starts to become more noticeable. Paco refuses to lend money to José, and Luis tells the young Enrique about a friend named Arturo who killed himself after fighting in the Civil War. The drunken Luis also tells Enrique of his interest in science fiction and that he is currently reading a novel about nuclear destruction and its long-term consequences. Paco deliberately shoots one of Juan’s ferrets as rabbits come out of their burrows, which infuriates José to the point of shooting and killing Paco. An enraged Luis tries to run over José with a Land Rover but not before José shoots him. Just before dying on the ground, Luis manages to shoot back with his rifle and kill José. The movie ends with a frozen image of the massacre’s sole survivor, Enrique, running away. To analyze the film’s engagement with extinction and biopolitics, the article will be divided in four sections: biopolitics and extinction studies, nuclear energy and myxomatosis in the 1950s, Saura’s The Hunt, and conclusion.
Biopolitics and Extinction Studies
Extinction studies has recently garnered significant attention in the humanities as a major critical approach to the rapidly declining biodiversity at local and global levels. The consequences of human-induced extinctions have spurred the creation of interdisciplinary platforms to discuss how species obliteration affects other ways of knowing and being on Earth. The creation of the Extinction Studies Working Group and its edited collection Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (2007), for example, demonstrates an effort to understand and do something about the different forms of lives that are lost every year. What are the biological and cultural (biocultural) effects of and responses to deforestation, habitat loss, hunting, global warming, among many other environmental concerns?
One of the major points that the editors of this collection—Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew—make is that extinction implies a host of narratives, rather than a singular phenomenon. By framing the disappearance of forms of life as a bioculturally plural process, they highlight the importance of allowing multiple disciplines to intermingle and collaborate alongside one another. It is only by using this type of lens that one can examine the collective deaths currently happening and their effects in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. This action will, in turn, “generate distinctive and meaningful ways not only of challenging human dominance, but of forming new modes of multispecies flourishing that engender hope and love in the face of such loss.”4 Biocultural sensitivities may develop only if biologically and culturally based fields of study unite in productive dialogues, resulting in love and hope against mass extinction’s fear and loss.
The overlapping frameworks that Rose, van Dooren, and Chrulew espouse underline the cultural and affective dimensions of this environmental crisis. Diagnosing extinction as a culturally charged concept, Ursula K. Heise argues that the stories, symbols, and artistic dimensions of mass extermination are indispensable for any effective protection of vulnerable and endangered species. She proposes that biodiversity is intricately connected with the creative skills that humans have conceived to address the looming obliteration that awaits some species. Heise states that “the valuation of biodiversity and efforts to protect it are profoundly cultural ventures, embedded in historical traditions and value frameworks that condition which lives are appreciated and conserved and which ones are disregarded, left to die out, or actively exterminated.”5 In a similar vein, Dolly Jørgensen emphasizes emotion’s influence in environmental history, situating conservation as a nostalgic practice relying on longing and belonging. She stresses the necessity of nostalgia’s leading not to paralysis but to change: “The emotions that drove the recovery of lost species and landscapes were put to good use: they reconnected people to animals and environments. Their emotions tied to the lost did not create a paralyzing nostalgia, but rather a nostalgia that brings about change.”6 Far from being exclusively reserved to the natural sciences, extinction is also about emotionally loaded cultural practices with the potential of improving the environment. Biodiversity, conservation, longing, and belonging are exercises that cut across preservation and eradication. The arbitrariness implied in Heise’s and Jørgensen’s views concerning which species can stay and which ones “are let go” gives extinction a biopolitical undertone in the Anthropocene. If Michel Foucault was correct in defining biopolitics as “the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die,” then it becomes possible to theorize extinction in this proposed geological epoch as a deeply biopolitical process.7 Instead of attributing species’ disappearance to natural selection or collision from outer space, the nature of the latest extinction event—or the “Sixth Extinction”—has been directly tied to human activity and exploitation. Elizabeth Kolbert, for instance, indicates that currently “we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”8
This power to decide which species live and die gives extinction a biopolitical dimension. In his study on the intersection between animal studies and biopolitics, Cary Wolfe undoes the human/animal binary that has traditionally characterized biopolitical discourse. “The biopolitical thought,” he claims, “is no longer ‘human’ vs ‘animal’; the biopolitical point is a newly expanded community of the living and the concern we should all have with where violence and immunitary protection fall within it, because we are all, after all, potentially animals before the law.”9 Wolfe’s concern lies in that legal protection of certain living beings is never permanently guaranteed and violence is always potentially present. Because the preservation of some entities over the extermination of others is never stable under biopolitical thought, the question becomes: Which precarious lives are worth saving? Conversely, which forms of life are considered invasive, useless, or otherwise damaging such that their accelerated extinction would be beneficial?
In Saura’s specific case, it is useful to frame the film as a biopolitical as well as cinematic experience about and in a human-designed biosphere. In her study on cinema and the Anthropocene, Jennifer Fay defines filmmaking as an artistic activity sensitive to environmental control. She argues that the environment has always been a fundamental part of cinema through the preservation of time and space as well as the creation of artificial worlds for entertainment and scientific inquiry. Film is an artform in which worlds, weathers, and distinct forms of life entangle with one another as humans—both creators and spectators of film—critically speculate on the future of the biosphere and the future of humankind: “Cinema enables us to glimpse anthropogenic environments as both an accidental effect of human activity and as a matter of design.” More importantly, Fay affirms that, because “cinema has encouraged the production of artificial worlds and simulated, wholly anthropogenic weather, it is the aesthetic practice of the Anthropocene.”10 I contend that Saura uses the aesthetics of filmmaking to examine human-made environmental alterations. In doing so, he destabilizes the boundaries that separate the natural from the unnatural, and the human from the animal. In his film, nuclear energy and myxomatosis are elements in which the biological, the artificial, and the political communicate, however tensely, with one another.
The Context of Nuclear Energy and Myxomatosis in the 1950s
The Nuclear Energy Board (JEN) was established in Madrid in 1951 for the study of nuclear energy. In doing so, Spain took a significant step toward modernization and industrialization in an effort to join the ranks of developed countries with atomic technologies. One of the first nations in the world to eagerly adopt nuclear energy, Spain was by 1973 the seventh largest producer of nuclear electricity in the West and ranked third among nations with the largest portion of nuclear electricity.11 Similarly, an undercover project centered on nuclear weaponry, named Proyecto Islero (Islero Project), briefly and secretly became part of the Spanish Nuclear Energy Board. In 1966, however, Franco decided to cancel the project because of expected US pressure and to avoid ending the “economic miracle” or desarrollismo that Spain was experiencing at the time. This was also the year when the infamous “Palomares incident” occurred in which a B-52G bomber of the US Air Force collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling over the Mediterranean Sea and off the coast of Spain. The B-52G was carrying four hydrogen bombs, three of which landed near the town of Palomares in Andalusia. The fourth fell into the Mediterranean Sea and was later recovered. None of the bombs exploded.
Guillermo Velarde, at the time a leading researcher of the Islero Project, claimed to have taken advantage of the Palomares incident to decipher the then highly classified Teller-Ulam configuration to make thermonuclear bombs. He wrote that he felt very frustrated when Franco ordered him to suspend the project. In his 2016 book Proyecto Islero: Cuando España pudo desarrollar armas nucleares (Islero Project: When Spain Could Develop Nuclear Weapons), he asserted: “Franco had told me that Spain’s interests had forced us to take that decision, but I could not avoid seeing the international context in which the exclusive group of nuclear nations always had the prerogative when making decisions that affected the entire world and we were always left out.”12 Spain’s initiatives in nuclear energy, the Palomares incident, and Velarde’s strong disagreement with his country’s exclusion from the elitist nuclear nations intimate highly biopolitical tensions. His statement that these nations could decide the fate of the human species on Earth extend to questions about the shifting boundaries between exposure to violence and legal protection.
As nuclear technology expanded throughout the globe during the first decades of the Cold War, another major environmental event occurred: the use of human-controlled disease to reduce rabbit infestations. The myxoma virus was originally detected in 1896 by Italian scientist Giuseppe Sanarelli when European rabbits died in his laboratory in Montevideo, Uruguay. A poliomyelitis specialist based in Melbourne, Dr. Jean Macnamara, traveled in 1934 to the Rockefeller Institute in New York and met with Dr. Richard Shope, who was at the time conducting research on myxomatosis. Intrigued by the possibility of introducing the disease to control rabbit overpopulation in her country, which had been first introduced in Australia in 1788, she communicated her idea to the appropriate authorities. By 1950 rabbits in Australia were devastating pasture land, consuming livestock grassland, and depriving native species of their food source: “When the population increase had gained momentum,” Frank Fenner and F. N. Ratcliffe assert, “the rabbits proceeded to spread northward and westward with a speed which we believe to be without parallel in the whole history of animal invasion.”13 By 1950 trials in special sites were conducted until the myxoma virus flared up and killed thousands of rabbits throughout Australia. Soon enough, however, rabbits started to develop genetic resistance to the virus, and the mortality rate fell from 90 percent to 25 percent after seven years.14 Rabbit infestation remains to this day a serious problem in rural Australia.15 From a scientific view, nonetheless, the natural history of myxomatosis provided a unique opportunity to study an infectious disease’s influence on mammal evolution.16
While Oryctolagus remains aggressively invasive in Australia, it is also precariously endangered in its native European habitat. In 1952 French physician Paul-Félix Armand-Delille utilized a different strain of the myxoma virus obtained from a laboratory in Switzerland to control rabbit population growth on his private estate in France. A year later the virus spread beyond France and into other European countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Spain, resulting in the death of thousands of rabbits. In the specific case of France, Fenner and Ratcliffe explain that rapid reduction of rabbit population had large-scale effects on the vegetation and predator populations.17 A similar situation occurred in Spain, where rabbit population decline as a result of myxomatosis and rabbit hemorrhagic disease led to the reduction of endemic predators such as the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) and the Spanish imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti). In their research on the classification of rabbits as keystone species in southern Europe, Miguel Delibes-Mateos and colleagues emphasize that rabbit conservation is fundamental for the protection of endangered predators in Spain.18
In addition to devastating ecological effects, myxomatosis also had a substantial impact on a major activity in the Iberian Peninsula—hunting. More than thirty-thousand hunting estates cover more than 70 percent of Spain, and these have to design management plans by estimating the number of animals to be harvested yearly.19 As rabbit population declined, management plans needed to be adjusted. Yet conservation efforts often conflict with rabbit hunters because hunting remains a popular sport in Spain. Both hunters and farmers negatively affect rabbit numbers in Spain, even in zones where rabbits play key ecological roles.20
The Spanish writer Miguel Delibes was already writing in the mid-twentieth century about myxomatosis and its negative impact on the hunting culture in Spain. In his 1964 book Libro de caza menor (The Book of Small Game), he discussed at length the myxoma virus and its impact in his homeland. Structuring his work in the form of a narrator informing an interlocutor on the art of hunting small game, Delibes harshly criticizes Armand-Delille for recklessly spreading the virus and driving the European rabbit dangerously close to extinction. He even describes the compassionate disgust at the sight of infected rabbits. “The rabbit infected by myxomatosis,” he writes, “is a pure and grotesque ruin: blind, flattened ears with repugnant cysts, inflamed mucous membranes, and broken organs. The rabbits weakly and clumsily wander around their quiet nests.”21 Furthermore, he describes sick rabbits as the shadow they once were: “It causes discomfort—an almost physical discomfort—to observe these poor animals, which when healthy are the emblem of agility, jumping around rocks using only their hearing.”22 By describing rabbits as pitifully fragile and grotesque ruins, Delibes presents a vision of hunting that is also in ruins because of the anthropogenic manipulation of a viral disease. His anxiety at the possibility that European rabbits may become extinct reflects a relationship between bioweaponry and interspecies relations. The hunter and the game enter into a precarious dimension of ecological as well as cultural disaster.
The proliferation of nuclear weaponry as well as the ability to manipulate viral diseases subject both hunter and game to a biopolitical framework and expose them to the possibility of extinction. Saura’s film centers precisely on the way these two seemingly unrelated events in the mid-twentieth century overlap with each other.
Saura’s The Hunt
Luis introduces nuclear war as a theme of discussion in the film. He is interested in a science fiction novel about nuclear destruction and is aware of nuclear pollution. When Enrique complains early on about his intolerance for cognac, for example, Luis jokingly tells him that it is the result of “the strontium, the radiations.” Whereas it is factually nonsense that radiation could cause intolerance for alcohol, Luis’s joke is an underlying sign that he is concerned about the catastrophic effects of nuclear destruction.
During various scenes in the movie, he appears reading the Spanish translation of a novel titled Dark Dominion (1954) by David Duncan.23 Set in the desert area of Big Sur, California, right after World War II, the novel’s plot takes place inside a secret military base charged with building an enormous satellite and station officially named Vittoria but nicknamed the Black Planet. Its main function is to be a nuclear missile reservoir with the ability to target any geographic location for destruction. The novel’s main argument, which Luis alludes to several times, resides in the fragmentary and alienating condition of human beings from one another, even as they seem to make “progress” in science and the creation of advanced technologies. Interestingly, although Luis appears to be reading this novel, he cites passages that are not actually in the novel or its translation. While it is beyond doubt that the cover of the book is the Spanish version of Duncan’s work, Luis conjures up a passage detailing massive explosions that never happened in Dark Dominion. Asking Paco to listen as he reads out loud this pseudo-passage, he says:
Luis: There was a Fifth Planet which exploded and blew up in little pieces. The moon was bombed and so was Earth. Pieces the size of mountains fell from the sky on the Earth and the moon. Perhaps a few places were saved from destruction. An acre, a square mile. Thousands of miles apart.
Paco: So what?!24
Later in the film, he mentally reads another passage:
Luis: Something survived. Something that is now completely forgotten. There was rain, wind and ice. The Earth’s scars were erased over millions of years. We don’t even know where the scars were situated, or whether human beings existed then on the Earth or on the Fifth Planet.
The destruction of this mysterious Fifth Planet, the Earth, and the Moon are apocalyptic scenarios that are never mentioned in Dark Dominion or its Spanish translation. Saura then rewrites Duncan’s novel, inserting a scenario of nuclear destruction and its aftermath, and reveals an Anthropocene sensibility that only Luis possesses through the aid of science fiction. Explosion, fallout, extinction, and oblivion enter the film’s imaginary by finding support in Black Dominion’s take on nuclear weaponry and by revising it altogether. Luis’s moments of reading are also moments of revision as he provides a far more shudder-worthy account about the effects of nuclear war. In this eerie outlook of the future, destruction is geologically recorded and life is forever extinct, except for something that survived but only to be forgotten. Science fiction becomes a lens through which Luis studies the potentially appalling outcomes that may come in the nuclear age. His friends’ indifference to his prophetic calling exacerbates their tragic condition as oblivious human subjects exposed to violence and the possibility of eradication.
From a cinematic perspective, Saura’s selection of a black-and-white format highlights the blazing weather that Luis more than once associates with a burning Earth, which is a consequence of radiation and nuclear explosion. As Rob Stone states, “Saura evokes the bleaching heat that keeps an overpowering sense of menace and tension simmering until the violent impulses of each man are ultimately directed against each other.”25 When José complains that they are “roasting alive” under the sun, Luis cites from the Bible’s Book of Revelation 8:7, in which the seven trumpets sounded by seven angels announce the apocalypse:
José: What a day. It seems like the Earth will burn.
Luis: And the third of the Earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green was burned up.
Later Enrique makes a fire out of boredom that quickly expands. Luis then proceeds to throw in the fire a mannequin that he and Enrique obtained at a nearby town for shooting practice. As the flames grow and the camera closes up on the burning mannequin, Luis tells Enrique: “Thus shall be the end of the world. All burning in the eternal fire. Amen.” Enrique quickly notices that the flares are growing and scattering around the field, uselessly trying to put out the fire as smoke covers him and the others. In addition to signaling menace and tension reminiscent of simmering social tensions in Francoism, the heat and fire also gesture toward radioactivity and the potential extinction of the human species.
Saura’s characters establish a connection between hunting, extinction, and biopolitics as they reflect on the aftermaths of the Civil War and speculate on the future of the planet and possibility of human extinction. José takes Paco to see the skeleton of a former soldier that had been forgotten inside a cave. As José is trying to open a padlock on the wooden door covering the cave, Paco jokingly asks him: “What do you have hidden here? You didn’t build an atomic shelter, did you?” Once they enter the cave, José uses his lighter to show Paco his secret hidden beneath the rocks:
José: Nobody knows it’s here. I found it years ago and left it as it was. Got really scared at the time. You’ll be the first one to see it.
Paco: Why don’t you bury it for God’s sake?
José: Burial will not do it any good now.
The anonymous skeleton has conventionally been interpreted as a symbol for the lives lost and forgotten after the Civil War. I suggest, however, that the skeleton signifies the deaths that occurred not only in the past but also those in the future, when the nuclear holocaust that the narrative repeatedly invokes will have come to pass. Paco’s seemingly superficial joke introduces the likelihood that the cave may indeed be an atomic shelter harboring a human lucky enough to have escaped immediate death, but later dying most likely of starvation and acute radiation syndrome. His irritation at seeing the postapocalyptic skeleton is also a sign of denial regarding the possibility of human extinction. In a way, the skeleton is the fossil of a once thriving and massively scattered species on Earth that is no longer living. Saura expands cinema’s aesthetic practice of the Anthropocene to design a future atmosphere teeming with anonymous skeletal remains in an unbearably hot climate. It is precisely the simultaneous excavation of bodies forgotten after the Civil War and the speculation about uncertain futures in the Anthropocene that disturb this seemingly egalitarian and harmless hunting day.
Saura generates in this scene a biocultural approach to extinction and biopolitics, positioning them within a cinematic and narrative framework. On the one hand, he frames extinction as a cultural event by showing its impact on storytelling and, more broadly, how humans relate to one another in a geological epoch marked by extermination across species. On the other, he frames biopolitics as process affecting various forms of life, both human and nonhuman. His approach to biopolitics consists of an enlarged community of living things in which violence and protection are always shifting between one group and another. Patricia Keller has argued that the landscape in The Hunt serves to accentuate the older men’s unspeakable past, which continues to wound and scar their present. These are “infested hunting grounds that engulf and absorb the protagonists and that are themselves replete with markings and scars, later revealed to be traces of a Civil War battle where thousands were killed.”26 Rather than simply confirming Keller’s point, I would like to expand the landscape’s definition and stress its biopolitical dimension.
The film’s landscape and its connection to extinction resides not only in radioactivity but also in myxomatosis. Whereas the human species is exposed to the possibility of nuclear pollution, the European rabbit in The Hunt is presently being exterminated through the myxoma virus. The manipulation of rabbit disease and nuclear heat creates a scenario in which human and animal lives enter a shared relationship of vulnerability, exposure, and violence. For instance, the rabbit holes that the camera zooms in on are directly juxtaposed to the cave holes on the mountain slopes where soldiers supposedly hid during the Civil War, and where future humans will supposedly die after nuclear destruction. The exposure to extermination that both forms of life share is a result of anthropogenic catastrophes and the administration of life across species line.
The first time that myxomatosis appears in its truly raw version is when Enrique, an urban young man completely ignorant about the disease, spots a dead rabbit. “It didn’t look like a rabbit,” he says, “not even an animal. It was like a monster. Will all the rabbits we hunt be like this?” Paco then states that Juan, the groundskeeper, only eats sick rabbits and that is why he limps. After shooting rabbits on their first hunt, and as Juan and his niece are skinning them, Luis wonders that maybe he and all of them have myxomatosis. Nuclear radiation and the myxoma virus haunt both hunter and prey in an environment where certain forms of life are actively eradicated. This sense of susceptibility to injury is even greater when the hunters state that humans are the best hunting game:
Luis: To a good hunter, rabbit hunting is meaningless. A harmless critter that’s just trying to hide.
Paco: There’s no room for the weak in life. No room for the weak or the idiots. It’s the law of nature.
Enrique: You don’t mean that . . .
José: Luis is right about the hunting. The rabbit gets few chances to defend itself. The more an enemy can defend himself, the nicer the hunt is. It’s a power-to-power struggle.
Luis: That’s why someone said that manhunt is the best hunt.
In this dialogue, hunting has deeply biopolitical implications. Rabbits are so meaningless, Luis affirms, that a more challenging and dangerous game is needed. Paco confirms this point, arguing that weak and insignificant forms of life do not possess enough subjectivity to be considered worthy of killing. When two equally powerful entities meet, then, there is an alternation between roles because the hunter can become the game and vice versa. Luis’s comments on the proliferation of nuclear weapons opens the possibility of considering the human species to be as vulnerable as the European rabbit.
What prompts the film’s tragic ending is the killing of a ferret participating in the killing of rabbits. Ferrets are central to the film as the first animals that appear on camera—ferrets inside a cage—and on the movie’s official poster. From a biopolitical standpoint, the caged ferrets become hunting weapons whose value is contingent on their ability to kill another living thing. Ferrets may be a direct reference to the soldiers of the Civil War, whose value also depended on their ability to kill. As ideal hunting assistants for rabbiting, these polecats are used by Juan to drive rodents out of their burrows to where hunters can shoot them. The camera records their progress as they go underground and bite the rabbits to force them toward the burrow’s exit. While the characters are shooting the long-awaited game, the sneaky Paco intentionally blasts one of Juan’s ferrets. Holding its dead body by the collar, Juan tells José: “The little creature carried out its duty, don José.” Although Paco claims to have made a mistake, Juan immediately counters that he did shoot the ferret on purpose. José confronts Paco and unearths a festering tension in their troubled past:
José: That was foul play, Paco. As usual.
Paco: What do you say? I can assure you that I was just telling Enrique that I once shot a dog.
José: I never thought you’d do something like this.
Paco: What are you on about? Give me a break for once!
Assumed to be valuable only as a hunting tool, ferrets actually mean a lot to Juan and his mother. The first sequence in the film shows Juan’s sick mother asking if the ferrets have water in their cage. Such emotional value does not, of course, negate the cruelty to which the ferrets are subjected as killing weapons.
What the sequence does, more importantly, is provide an accurate and complex reading of how the movie reveals and interrogates humans’ emotional relationships with other animals. Kari Weil affirms that a critically sensitive engagement with other species allows for an intimate relation with them, even if we never know how they actually feel: “In projecting sameness or similarities upon another species, we feel our gaze come back to us to make us question how well we really know who we are and whether we know what we’re capable of.”27 Jacques Derrida indicates that seeing an animal who sees us reveals physically painful ambiguities, a certain intimacy of the flesh that we share with them as vulnerably mortal living things: “Mortality resides here, as the most radical means of thinking the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing this possibility of nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of this anguish.”28 Animals, he suggests, make us kinesthetically empathetic to mistreatment, pain, and suffering as they project their gaze back to us and make us face what we otherwise are reluctant to confront. In The Hunt, the characters look at us directly, just as they look at the rabbits and ferrets, which look back at them and us through the camera. This act of looking and being looked at establishes an intersubjective contact zone that demands the acceptance of differences and the possibility of being transformed by those differences.
Saura’s The Hunt delivers a cinematic reflection on extinction and biopolitics by connecting the deliberate use of myxomatosis to control rabbit population with nuclear pollution. It conceives of hunting as an activity directly related to these two major events, which had both local and planetary consequences. In a sense, the movie engages with Ortega y Gasset’s perspective that hunting is experiencing a redefinition as a result of the creation of advanced technologies capable of destroying any type of living thing. Saura’s film approaches hunting by establishing a line of correspondence between the organization of life, the deliberate manipulation of disease, and the creation of weapons of mass destruction. This article brings out a previously unappreciated dimension of The Hunt by studying it in light of pressing concerns about extinction and biopolitics in environmental humanities.
One of the major goals of environmental humanities is precisely to engage in discussions about extinction studies and its relation to biopolitics. Within extinction studies, scholars such as Heise and Jørgensen have argued that the extinction of biodiversity possesses cultural and emotional dimensions, which are powerful fuels for environmental conservation. Wolf has affirmed that biopolitics is no longer exclusive to humans; it has become an expanding community that also includes other living things. As a result of this expansion, and the legal arbitrariness implicit in the animal/human binary, violence and protection are no longer stable categories. Saura’s The Hunt brings extinction and biopolitics into conversation by making us reflect on the act of hunting as an exercise with major consequences for certain human populations and for disappearing species. Underarticulated in this process is the selection of which species and human groups will remain and which ones will be exterminated, and in The Hunt this selection is never stable. On the one hand, the movie critiques Francoism by shedding light on the extermination of one type of human group, the Republican faction that fought against Franco. On the other, it implies that even those who fought in favor of Franco (the three older protagonists) are never safe from violence because, despite being hunters, they can also become game. The men share a certain level of vulnerability with the rabbits and the ferrets because they are all entities equally subjected to a biopolitical framework that can either sustain or obliterate them.
Myxomatosis and nuclear pollution, the movie suggests, are destructive forces. Since the discovery of Oryctolagus in South America at the end of the nineteenth century, scientists have sought to control it with the myxoma virus, both in its native European habitat and in Australia. Even though Spain never openly designed nuclear weapons, nuclear physics and chemistry became two scientific fields with influential power during Franco’s government,29 and there was always a threat of radioactivity. Saura’s film brings radioactivity into conversation with myxomatosis as two major biopolitical forces in Spain and in other countries precisely because both shared the potential of extinction, nation building, and planetary pollution.
Saura’s film centralizes anthropogenic alterations to the environment. In doing so it exemplifies Fay’s approach to cinema as the Anthropocene’s aesthetic dimension. Guy Wood states that Saura is an ecologista director because he used filmmaking as an art form to speculate on environmental catastrophe and ruminate on biodiversity loss.30 With its mostly quick-paced, dangerous atmosphere teeming with fearful uncertainty, Saura’s film delivers a sense of environmental consciousness, which is a defining feature of ecocinema. As Paula Willoquet-Maricondi affirms, ecocinema stimulates “our thinking so as to bring about concrete changes in the choices we make, daily and in the long run, as individuals and societies, locally and globally.”31The Hunt performs this environmental project as it removes the distance that separates hunters from their prey and lays bare the vulnerability and exposure to violence and death across species lines. In effect, Saura makes perceptible the common mortality of both the hunter and the hunted, the human and the nonhuman. The director ultimately offers a scathing critique of a bourgeois complacency that fails to recognize environmental degradation. Rabbits and nuclear pollution disarm the film’s hunters by connecting the human with the animal, the past with the future, and the national with the planetary.
I would like to thank N. Michelle Murray for encouraging me to write this article. I also would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editorial board of Environmental Humanities for carefully reading an earlier version of my article and providing valuable feedback.
Ortega y Gasset, La caza y los toros, 66. All translations are my own unless otherwise stated.
Two important works that provide an overview of Saura’s films in relation to Spain are Agustín Sánchez Vidal’s El cine de Carlos Saura (1988) and Marvin D’Lugo’s Films of Carlos Saura. There have also been several important scholars that discuss Saura’s engagement with politics in Spain. Marsha Kinder has argued that The Hunt takes hunting (one of Franco’s favorite hobbies) into a political commentary about Francoism, in which hunting represents “modern massacre” (Kinder, Blood Cinema, 160). In her study on the relation between geography and national identity in Spanish cinema, Katherine Kovács states that The Hunt “marks the creation of a new cinematographic language and style that implicates the landscape itself in the denunciation of Francoism” (“Plain in Spain,” 23). Along these lines, Patricia Keller indicates that Saura’s movie concentrates on the “legibility of place” that detotalizes, fragments, and interrogates the landscape (Ghostly Landscapes, 102). Sally Faulkner has focused on the movie’s depiction of age and aging in relation to politics (“Ageing and Coming of Age,” 459), while Margarita Pillado-Miller has discussed the movie’s depiction of sickness and its ideological commentary on Franco’s government (“‘La república va al doctor,’” 138). More recently, Claudia Alonso-Recarte and Ignacio Ramos-Gay have written on animal suffering and death in Spanish film, including The Hunt, arguing that what “Spanish contemporary cinema indeed shows us is an active examination of its understanding of Spanishness through (or, perhaps more accurately, at the expense of) the suffering animal” (“Passionate Call for Murder,” 68).
Fenner and Ratcliffe, Myxomatosis, 23.
Fenner and Ratcliffe, Myxomatosis, 345.
Duncan’s Dark Dominion appeared in Spain in 1956 under the title El planeta negro and was published by the science fiction press Nebulae based in Barcelona. The editor, Miguel Masriera, was a famous scientist and popular science writer during Franco’s regime. He even wrote the prologue for Duncan’s novel in Spanish. In his study about the journalist and his connection to the dictatorship, Agustí Nieto-Galan argues that Masriera’s enthusiastic spreading of atomic knowledge to various local audiences was directly tied to Spain’s desire to insert itself in international discussions about the use of nuclear energy. As Nieto-Galan states, Masriera’s “erudite, cosmopolitan science popularization provided an open window for the regime abroad, in a time of intellectual isolation of Spain from Western Europe” (“From Papers to Newspapers,” 529). For more detailed information, see Nieto-Galan, “From Papers to Newspapers.”
Translations provided by the movie’s English subtitles.
For more detailed information on physics and Francoism, see Néstor Herran and Xavier Roqué’s edited collection La física en la dictadura: Físicos, cultura y poder en España 1939–1975 . For chemistry and its political force in Spain, see Nieto-Galan’s Politics of Chemistry.