by Hope Madden
Per Quechua tradition, when a condor decides its life has lost its purpose, it flies to the top of the mountain, then closes its wings to die on the rocks below. It’s a heavy metaphor, and one that suits not only Utama’s hero Virginio (José Calcina) but perhaps the entire Quechua way of life.
Virginio and his wife Sisi (Luisa Guispe) live in the Bolivian highlands where they keep a small herd of llamas. But it’s been months since it rained. The well in the town several miles away is dry, and now Sisi has to make an even longer walk to a faraway river. Even the snow at the top of the mountain is gone.
To make matters worse, Virginio’s cough has gotten deeper and more insistent. Their grandson Clever’s (Santos Choque) unexpected visit further throws the pair’s generally calm and simple life into chaos.
In a stunning feature debut, writer/director Alejandro Loayza Grisi develops this simple premise into both an intimate tale of survival and a global allegory of time, change and destruction.
Gorgeous Bolivian panoramas tell half the tale on their own, and the filmmaker’s framing is exceptional. Unlikely heroes disappear Eastwood-like into sunsets, jauntily festooned llamas crane their necks curiously about. Each splash of color feels like an act of bravery. Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez merges joy and sorrow in every image, her execution of Grisi’s vision simultaneously serene and forbidding, but always gorgeous.
Sweetly heartbreaking performances from Guispe and Calcina deliver lived-in, enduring love that ensures the tale never tips too far toward symbol. You care deeply about what happens to these two. The authenticity of their work gives the film an almost documentary feel that only deepens its effect.
Beautiful beyond measure but never showy, deliberate, and set among elderly people of a tiny community high in the hills of Bolivia, a film like Utama feels impossible.