A man sits in his Lamborghini with a leopard on a leash in the passenger seat. A group of falconers sit in a tent in the middle of the desert, eating from a huge vat of rice and lamb with their hands. Multiple white SUVs race through the sand dunes.
Using striking images but no narration and little dialogue, Italian artist and filmmaker Yuri Ancarani’s first feature-length documentary ‘The Challenge’ doesn’t have any real contextualisation until about 15 minutes into its 70-minute running time.
Set in modern-day Qatar, the film documents the tradition of falconry on the Arabian Peninsula, where falcons can sell for up to $24k each to ultra-rich sheikhs for whom money is basically no object.
'THE CHALLENGE' TRAILER
With artfully composed, opulent visions of the Middle East (shot by Ancarani, Jonathan Ricquebourg, and Luca Nervegna) and a majestic, orchestral soundtrack by Lorenzo Senni and Francesco Fantini, the film unwinds slowly, with beautiful scenes of the desert and interesting peeks into the high-class, blinged-out culture of the Arabian falconers.
This documentary is all about juxtaposition: man and beast, technology and nature, wealth and simplicity. When the climactic falconry contest finally takes place, for example, we watch the competition through a giant TV screen set up in the middle of Qatar’s shifting sands, as the white-robed, all-male spectators sit on elaborate Persian carpets inside their tents playing incessantly with their mobile phones, intercut with footage taken from a camera placed on the bird itself.
Most scenes are long and dreamy, but they also tend to be repetitive and draaaag.
Unfortunately, as amazing as everything looks and sounds, ‘The Challenge’ is quite boring. Most scenes are long and dreamy, obviously paying tribute to the artistry of the film's subject, but they also tend to be repetitive and draaaag. There are no insights or commentary to be found: Ancarani never explains the official rules and protocols involved in falconry, nor do we ever see the servants who presumably prepared the event. A complete exercise in stylistic abstraction, the documentary often feels like a glossy, expensive promo video for, say, Louis Vuitton’s Spring 2018 collection.
With a great score and plenty of beautiful visuals to gawp at, ‘The Challenge’ may hold a hypnotic appeal for anyone keen to park up a pre-roll, bake a batch of edibles or bust out the vape pen. However, I suspect anyone watching this sober will be squirming in their seats before the titular event ever kicks off.