Over four months and nearly 400 miles, two shepherds lead a flock of 800 sheep through Switzerland and France in "Hiver Nomade" ("Winter Nomads"). An exhilarating vérité work by first-timer Manuel von Stürler, the documentary follows this seasonal migration, or transhumance, with a sense of quiet awe and intimacy, capturing the feel of cold rain, deep snow and the comforting heat of a campfire.
Pascal, 53, is in his 32nd year of traditional shepherding and the occasional taskmaster to newcomer Carole, 28, who's still learning the trek's exacting requirements. Like "Sweetgrass," a 2009 portrait of Montana shepherds, the movie immerses the viewer in the day-to-day challenges and the physical beauty of the setting, revealing background information only as it arises in conversations. There are dinners with friends that serve as annual rituals, and there are chats with welcoming strangers, like the suburbanite who brings the hardy duo hot drinks and chocolate truffles and speaks with envy of the "relaxing" nature of their work.
The goal of the transhumance is to fatten the flock for consumption, and the culling is handled matter-of-factly, with breeder Jean-Paul arriving to cart away sheep when they've achieved "the right feel." It's the opposite of factory farming.
With their donkeys and dogs, the shepherds make their way through a landscape in transition, at times within shouting distance of the highway. Looking at an assemblage of prefab villas that have claimed a pasture, Pascal shakes his head and mutters, "Disneyland!" In this elegant film, the old ways are as vigorous as they are vulnerable.
— Sheri Linden
"Hiver Nomade." No MPAA rating. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.
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