Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Characters come and go between these different worlds, emerging and re-emerging in different forms, as we explore different aspects of colonialism, responses to it, and survival strategies at personal and cultural levels."

Throughout the history of cinema, the stories of indigenous peoples in the Americas have been framed almost entirely through the gaze of immigrant European peoples. Lisandro Alonso’s challenging three-part film is informed by their own stories, not just in the narratives it unfolds, but also in the structures of its storytelling.

Scripted with the aid of authors Martin Camaño and Fabian Casas, this is a film as rich in thematic and literary motifs as it is in imagery. The first segment, which stars Viggo Mortensen as a damaged man looking for trouble in a dissolute frontier town, plays out like a black and white reworking of The Searchers, taking John Ford’s vision of the Wild West to such an extreme that its nature as propaganda can no longer be denied, and at the same time speaking to the very real tragedy wrought upon Native peoples by colonial brutalisation and alcohol. It is comedic in those extremes, as it is horrific, but most notably it gives Ford a run for his money with its stunning visuals. Mortensen is perfect for this kind of work, creating a character whom we get to know through his run-down physicality, the sort of man who will kill to get a room and then not use the bed.

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It is, of course, an exaggerated account, a take on that historical fictionalisation of indigenous lives, which is quickly established as we move into the second segment. Though this is in colour, there is, for much of the time, less visual information onscreen, as it’s set at night and, in parts, during heavy snowfall. The interiors we glimpse are – aside from the unavoidable casino – muted, verging on grim, with their predominant blue-greys, and this informs a vision of Pine Ridge reservation which is enervated and lonely. We follow a police officer (Alaina Clifford, delivering a take on the job she does in real life) as she deals with one tragic incident after another, still with their roots in poverty and alcohol. Out on the road by herself, she seems sufficiently vulnerable that it’s not just the snow that will make you shiver, even after we’ve seen that she can handle herself. There’s a sense of danger here that goes beyond the human, beyond the merely physical.

Also present in this segment is the officer’s niece, Sadie, a basketball coach who says “Call me Magic Johnson,” but whose presence inevitably recalls the legacy of SuAnne Big Crow, who lost her own life on a lonely road. Like her aunt, she has dedicated her life to trying to help others, to save them from despair, but it has taken a toll on her. Eventually she will go to her elderly grandfather to seek a solution which is itself rooted in tradition, and which opens up the most overtly magical realist aspect of the film. We follow a red necked stork which struts as if it knows it is descended from dinosaurs through spacetime to some space deep in the Brazilian forest in 1974, where indigenous people share their dreams but sharing other things can be too much. A young man seeks his fortune panning for gold only to learn that too much luck can be as bad as none.

Characters come and go between these different worlds, emerging and re-emerging in different forms, as we explore different aspects of colonialism, responses to it, and survival strategies at personal and cultural levels. Throughout, the cinematography is superb, thanks to Timo Salminen (who previously worked with Alonso on the magnificent Jauja) and Mauro Herce. The film is immersive and enchanting even when it is bleak, and Alonso keeps reminding us that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in any philosophy. It is a film which tears away comforting forms and fictions only to instil wonder.

Reviewed on: 16 Feb 2024
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Three stories set in wildly different terrain reflect lives haunted by the specter of colonialist violence.
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Director: Lisandro Alonso

Writer: Lisandro Alonso, Martín Caamaño, Fabian Casas

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Chiara Mastroianni, Alianna Clifford

Year: 2023

Runtime: 146 minutes

Country: Argentina, France, Portugal

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