Film Review: The Challenge

The challenge of 'The Challenge' is figuring it out.
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Part documentary, part absurdist comedy, The Challenge clocks in at little over an hour—what Old Hollywood used to call “programmer length”—yet this indie film about falconry feels much longer. Thanks to an opaque narrative and slow pacing, The Challenge will test your own endurance, but a cult following seems likely.

If you ever wondered what super-wealthy men from Qatar do for recreation, director Yuri Ancarani provides the answer in The Challenge. While it takes time before you realize it, the preferred pastime for these sheikhs involves pitting high-priced falcons against one another in amateur competition. For the most part, without narration or explanation, all we see are a series of puzzling, surrealist vignettes: workers tending to the aviary where the falcons are raised; the trainers meticulously grooming the falcons (on a private jet outfitted for the occasion); men on motorcycles preparing for some kind of trek across the desert; the rich Arabs bidding at auction on the falcons for the upcoming “games”; and even one sheikh taking his pet cheetah on a ride in his Ferrari to see the spectacle (in the passenger seat, naturally).

Once we finally understand what is going on, our unease supersedes our bewilderment. What is the point of this “sport,” which requires the falcons to track down prey in the form of helpless pigeons? How well are the birds really treated through this process? And why are these men (and there are only men) devoting so much of their time to this nonsense? These are questions the film never answers—but the very fact that Ancarani achieved access to all aspects of the competition, including shots inside the Qatari palaces, gives us a glimpse into a private world we might otherwise never see.

The action of the final sequence is not entirely clear but it hints, finally, that Ancarani is sharply critical of the whole enterprise. Otherwise, we are left on our own to decipher what is occurring before us and how we should feel about it. If nothing else, the Italian-born director (who also shot and edited The Challenge) echoes the enigmatic visuals of desert landscape specialist Michelangelo Antonioni and treats us to bizarre, beautiful but also disturbing widescreen images to ponder.

Another, more distant echo, Land Without Bread, Luis Bunuel’s seminal 1932 mockumentary, remains the champ, yet The Challenge also calls into question what we are seeing and even the notion of the documentary as an objective, accurate record. Of course, we can’t help thinking about The Birds (1963) and how that Hitchcock film creates ambiguity of meaning and multiple points of view. (The birds in both films get similar POV shots, but The Challenge runs sadly short of avenging animals.)

The Challenge is purposefully challenging, which is not a bad thing but isn’t a very comforting thing either.

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