My favorite program in the Tokyo International Film Festival every year is “natural TIFF,” which presents documentaries and features on environmental and social issues. Usually I do not know anything about these films going into them, so they are always informative and education, but the best of them are also entertaining and moving. The Last Shepard covers all of these and is my favorite film in the festival so far.
The title refers to Renato Zucchelli, who claims to be the last roaming shepherd leaving in an urban area, Milan to be exact, and no one is likely to challenge his claim. Several sequences showing him bring traffic to a halt as he ushers a seemingly endless stream of sheep across the road make clear that he is the last of a dying breed. The film opens in the classroom of an elementary school in Milan, which the teacher asking the city kids if they know what a shepherd is. The subplot seems disconnected with the portrait of Zucchelli and his family until the last scene, when he makes headlines by bringing the kids into Piazza del Duomo to meet 700 sheep.
The message of the documentary is clear: urbanization is killing tradition. Indeed, Zuccheli is able to speak a lost language that was once used by nomadic shepherds. But the filmmakers never take themselves to serious, and the experience of viewing the film is entertaining rather than depressing. Zucchelli is an immediately likable person and many of the funny moments involve him trying to squeeze his ample frame into the small caravan he takes with him on the road, or using his good nature to overcome communication problems with Muslim butchers who are important clients. He also has a toothless friend who is constantly calling out for a dog who ran off years ago.
In the end, it is not completely clear if it is a good or bad thing that there is only one shepherd left in Italy, nor does the film urge that anything be done about it. Rather, it is an opportunity to step into the life of an interesting person, and reflect on if our lives might not be unnecessary complicated.