With cigarette in mouth, Italian filmmaker Danièle Incalcaterra rolls into the Paraguayan Chaco – a sparsely populated region – searching for a piece of land that he owns. Thus begins El Impenetrable (2012), a documentary following his quest to rid himself and his brother of the dark, moral cloud that lingers over them and their ownership of the plot. Five-thousand hectares have sat unspoiled ever since their father acquired it (and registered it in the name of his sons) during Alfredo Stroessner’s regime. Hoping to undo some of the previous generation’s actions, he hopes to donate the land back to the native inhabitants.

For decades, Paraguay existed beneath the harsh rule of Stroessner before he was finally ousted from power in 1989 after a military coup led by General Andres Rodriguez. During his 35-year reign, the country saw civil liberties suspended and dissidents vanish whilst it becoming a haven for drug-dealers, gun-runners and war criminals; it was during this period that the land in question was purchased but never even visited. When Incalcaterra arrives in the area, he learns that there’s no road access to his family plot and the neither of the farmers with adjacent land are keen to allow him through. One appears amiable enough in discussion, but both Danièle and his companion note the rifle cradled in his arm.

Responsible for criminal deforestation and the aiding and abetting of smugglers, it becomes clear that whatever Danièle wishes to do with the land will only be possibly if it suits his neighbours. With the camera ever-present, he tries a variety of ways to convince them to allow him through their land to get to his own. It’s an interesting portrait of the atmosphere of intimidation and lawlessness that can still govern areas of the modern world – resembling the Wild West in more ways than one. As the possibility of handing ownership to the Nandeva people grows unlikely, and the notion of a nature reserve is touted, events are complicated by a rival claim for the same land.

Not only can Danièle not visit the land but neither can he guarantee that his claim will be upheld. It’s the sort of situation that could easily incense audiences disgusted by both the bureaucracy and the inherent corruption. The problem with El Impenetrable, however, is that it lacks a human angle. Despite telling a personal story, and although his aims are wonderfully altruistic, the film never gets under the skin; the continual exasperation can be seen and understood, but it is never really felt. The film ends up presenting a tale that is intellectual rather than emotive, which might just have been what was needed to elevate it.

El Impenetrable screens as part of the DocHouse strand at London’s Rich Mix Cinema on 18 July, 2013. For more info, visit dochouse.org.

Ben Nicholson