Review of Sundance “Utama” – The Hollywood Reporter
With Sundance moving online again this year, some movies end up losing out by not being able to premiere on the big screen. utama, the beautifully directed feature debut of Bolivian director Alejando Loayza Grisi, is one of them.
Shot on a cleverly composed, vividly colored widescreen by DP Barbara Alvarez (The Headless Woman), it looks like a cross between a minimalist western by Sergio Leone and a series of photos by Sebastião Salgado – an aesthetic that unfortunately loses some of its appeal when viewed on a laptop. And yet the story at the heart of the film, which follows an elderly couple’s struggle to stay alive in the drought-ravaged Bolivian highlands, is more than just a vision from a book about culture. indigenous ; it’s a powerful and uplifting tale of survival in a dying world.
A visually arresting and uplifting tale of survival.
With its bare scenario, few dialogues and long tracking shots of the Altiplano in cracked earth, utama, which means “our house” in Quechua, is the kind of slow-cinema type film that was still able to find favor with art houses in the pre-COVID era. These days it will likely end up on a specialist streaming site like Mubi, though a theatrical release is still possible in Europe (the film was co-produced in France) and a few select territories.
Working with a real couple of Aymaran ancestry whom he met while scouting, Loayza Grisi cast them as Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe), a pair of elderly llama herders who lived in the arid plains of Bolivia all their lives. Virginio and Sisa are not ready to leave, despite the increasing difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of finding an adequate source of water for them and their livestock.
The term climate change is never used in the film, but it’s clear that so many people have abandoned an area that until fairly recently was able to secure water from the surrounding ice-covered mountains or regular rains. that came every season. The only viable sources that still exist for Virginio and Sisa are the well in a deserted town that, once again, looks like it belonged in a Leone western, or a small stream that is about to dry up.
And yet the couple carry on, unable to detach themselves from their land and culture, both of which seem to be fading. The arrival of their grandson, Clever (Santos Choque), who grew up in La Paz and who you never see without his wireless headphones, brings a touch of modernity to their world, but also a new conflict: Clever begs them to abandon their ranch and join his family in town—an idea that seems to tempt Sisa. But Virginio, whose alarming cough is getting worse by the hour, refuses to change his ways, even if it could mean his own downfall.
Another film would have explored the older couple’s life in La Paz after the move and how they would have been forced to change their ways in the big city, just like in Leo McCarey. See you tomorrow or at Ozu History of Tokyo. But Loayza Grisi remains stubbornly earthbound in the same way as Virginio and Sisa, setting his small-scale drama against a grandiose arid backdrop, in a part of the planet where few films have ever set foot (recent exceptions include Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth Altiplano and the otherwise forgettable Quantum of Comfort).
When Virginio’s health becomes dire and the search for water becomes desperate, he decides to gather the remaining members of his Aymara community to perform a sacrificial ritual that will hopefully save them all. The ceremony takes place atop a tattered mountain, and it’s one of the film’s visual highlights, adding a mythical quality to the otherwise naturalistic storyline.
But the act is also useless against the inevitable collapse of the region, and with it the disappearance of an entire people. In this direction, utama is a very pessimistic film, which never turns away from the realities faced by those who still inhabit the highlands of Bolivia. And yet, it is also a compelling, and sometimes moving, optimism, less about the possibility that the situation will really change, at least soon, than about the ability of human beings to forge stronger bonds and regain their dignity, so that death slowly sets in.