Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 03, 2022 10:47 am 
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Beauty and attrition in the Bolivian highlands

Utama is an atmospheric, beautiful film about a vanishing community and a declining individual in the Altoplano, the Bolivian highlands. It's a little slow, frankly, but the sense of authenticity is stunning, especially when the whole community appears, and the landscape is gorgeous. The filmmakers seem invisibly assimilated, like Zacharias Kunuk in his Inuit dramas that began with Atanarjurat: the Fast Runner. Indeed like so many films this seems like a play, one with extraordinarily authentic and austere sets and dramatic panoramas. Here, it is not a question of a vanishing culture but a vanishing environment, though its beauty remains, without the lifeblood of water. The local farmers, like the giant condors that watch over them, are drifting toward extinction.

The actors may be very close to the parts they play, the elderly Quechua couple (a real couple) and their adult grandson who comes on an extended visit from the city of La Paz. The latter, Clever (Santos Choque), who in millennial fashion is often on his phone even here, speaks to his grandparents, Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) in Spanish; they speak to each other in Quechua. Clever has presumably come to urge his "abuelo" and "abuela" to come to the city, as many of the locals already have, due to a drought so severe the wells have gone dry and they must go further and further for water, no longer to the nearby town now but to the river, which is shrinking. There has been no rain for a year. Virginio goes to the mountain with the other remaining villagers to sacrifice an animal to the weather god. It brings no result.

But Virginio would not consider such a move as Clever proposes. He is focused on a deeper, more personal issue clearly signaled by his heavy breathing and the fits of coughing he gives way to when out with his llamas, away from his wife's earshot. He is sick, he must die. Eventually he collapses out by himself, causing his llamas, the graceful creatures with their pink ribbons on their ears, to go astray, and worrying Sisa when he doesn't return. Clever goes out and finds him at night. (He later fetches the llamas as well.) After Virginio has been brought home and recovered somewhat, Clever goes away, seeming to give up. Instead he returns a while later in a van with a doctor in a white coat paid for by his father. The doctor applies a stethoscope to Virginio's chest and tells him he is severely ill, that he knows this, and that he must come to the hospital in town for testing and treatment.

Nothing doing, and Virginio throws away the pills the doctor leaves him for pain. He has already made clear to Clever that he expects to die soon, and expresses the strange notion that since he doesn't want Sisa to be left alone, she must go with him. (There are hints of ritual and magic realism in this film.)

Loayza Grisi, formerly a still photographer, captures the awesome drama of the highland landscapes in spectacular widescreen digital images that show people as tiny, dwarfed figures on the horizon. The environment is becoming uninhabitable for llamas and for men due to climate change, but the spiritual feel of the spaces will remain.

We can admire the simplicity of this existence. Virginio's entire wealth is a tiny mud walled farm, and the llamas. All his memories fit into a little tin box with a few tiny old photos, himself as a schoolboy on top and a few pieces of gold underneath, which he passes on to his grandson along with his felt hat. (The women as well as the men often wear felt hats, and the women wear handwoven scarves and sweaters with their distinctive skirts.)

Clever and Sisa find Virginio passed away peacefully on his bed. The village burial follows. There is a sense that this film is about Clever, seen contemplating out under the dark sky before he departs with a present of large socks from Sisa for his son. He is after all as enigmatic as his grandfather, but the future is his, wherever it may go.

Often wordless, this film tale is as understated as it is authentic. The cinematography by Barbara Alvarez (dp on Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman) is impeccable and sometimes breathtaking. But in storytelling terms Utama leaves us a little short, providing few specifics of the local culture, leaving its three main characters opaque and touching on few values other than patience and endurance. But those are big ones and we have never seen this landscape and these people in a feature film before.

Utama (which means "Our Home"), 87 mins., debuted at Sundance, where it won the grand jury prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition, and showing at twenty other festivals, with many nominations and awards. Chosen to be Bolivia's entry in the best foreign section of the next Academy Awards. Distributed by Kino Lorber, is opens in New York Nov. 4, 2022 and in Los Angeles Nov. 11. Showing in San Francisco at the Roxie starting Dec. 30. Metacritic rating was 77%, now (12/2/22) 73%.

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