Alejando Loayza Grisi’s award-winning debut feature, Utama is an understated but spectacularly mounted drama about an ageing Quechua couple tending llamas on the edge of civilisation. They live in a very modest stone house that looks out onto the Bolivian altiplano.
It’s a hardscrabble existence for Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) that heavily depends upon their ability to continue physically demanding work well into their dotage, and a finely balanced connection with their local ecosystem. The parched and cracked panorama on which Virginio grazes the llamas, and the chesty cough that sometimes sees him bent double as he does so, both suggest that their life is going to become significantly harder. The rains are late, the village well is drying up, and people are migrating to the city at an alarming rate.
The effects of the climate crisis on this region and its population were perhaps the main driving force behind the screenplay by Loayza Grisi but the situation his film adroitly essays weaves in a variety of challenges facing Bolivia and its people. Virginio and Sisa are visited, for much of the film, by their grandson Clever (Santos Choque) whose journey to see them from the city drives home the impact of urban migration not just on rural communities in general, but on individual families within them. Equally, Clever primarily speaks Spanish, only understanding a few phrases of his grandfather’s dialect; their generational inability to communicate made literal in the way that Quechua is being subsumed by the colonial tongue. Virginio’s entire way of life, and by extension that of the village – from rising pre-dawn for work to walking miles to fetch water, to visiting the mountain in search of answers about the absent rainfall – feels alien and archaic. It creates a tension between Virginio and Clever that exacerbates the former’s stubbornness when suggestions are made that they should leave their home, or at least he should visit a proper city doctor.
The cinematography by DoP Barbara Alvarez is spectacular throughout, making the most of the altiplano’s vast open skies to create a sense of nature’s awe-inspiring grandeur. It is cliché to suggest that any frame could be clipped and hung on the wall, but it is not inaccurate on this occasion. This is especially true for the external shots, which use the immensity of the landscape to dwarf the people inhabiting it. In some instances, the composition might recall the kind of photograph in which a human occupant is merely there to make tangible the incredible scale of the environment, but here it also serves the purpose of regularly reminding the audience of the enormous task facing those trying to survive here.
José Calcina and Luisa Quispe are both non-professional actors – as are most people who appear in the film – but the subtlety and warmth of their performances, and as a result, the ensuing melancholy and pathos, belie that fact. Their relationship is brilliantly portrayed, presumably in part because they are actually married. Still, even playing characters unlike themselves, their rapport consistently feels authentic whether that is in moments of discord, camaraderie, tenderness, or frustration. Through tiny embellishments and wordless exchanges of knowing looks, they manage to convey a long life together and one that makes the exertions they now must face all the more difficult. Letting go can often be the hardest thing to do and although Utama allows itself the odd flourish of magical realism, it is in the underlying truth of these experiences that the film hits home the hardest. A home that is becoming ever trickier to maintain – whether that is the tiny house on the fringe of the altiplano or the fragile blue marble, spinning in the cosmos, that it delicately sits upon.
UTAMA is released in UK/Irish cinemas 25 November – Cinema Listings
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson