Reviewed by: Robert Munro

Penumbra is a mysterious and rather glacial meditation on life and death, taking in the day-to-day existence of elderly couple Adelelmo and Dolores who, as the programme notes explain, “surrounded by the past, wait for death”. Cheery it isn’t.

It is, however, surprisingly captivating. With minimal dialogue and very little actually happening on the screen - at one point we witness Adelelmo try to tune a radio for what feels like an eternity - the film may have provoked boredom and frustration. Yet there’s something poetically haunting about the couple’s existence and the smallness of their world.

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Adelelmo is a hunter, and spends much of the film tracking a deer while his wife Carlota remains at home, surrounded by religious icons. We learn that they had a son who has passed away as they attend a mass in his honour with minimal fuss. Adelelmo subsequently loses his appetite and is bedridden for a spell - we never explicitly learn what ails him, or how serious it is, but death hangs threateningly in the air like a fog rolling in from the ocean.

The most insight we are ever afforded into the life of Adelelmo arrives when he regales a friend with an anecdote about the time he caught a tiger. We learn that he had another wife who died, and other children, of whom we have heard nothing. But it is the tiger that is the star of the story and the memory of it provides a brief spark in the otherwise quiet solitude of Adelelmo’s eyes. The eyes of a hunter.

As he returns to hunt the deer - which we have not yet seen, and begin to question the existence of - our thoughts wander to his encounter with the tiger and Adelelmo’s perilous existence on the hunt. Perhaps he has felt his life begin to ebb away, just as the trail of the deer began to grow cold. There’s something very Old Man And The Sea about proceedings, a feeling that Adelelmo’s life is vindicated in asserting his superiority or mastering of his environment, and the tracking of the deer becomes ever more crucial as the film continues.

The wilderness is captured rather beautifully on what looks like film stock, the light of the jungle and the grainy, saturated colours bringing mind to Werner Herzog’s South American jungle excursions. There’s also a real sense of magic realism to the film, of the merging of the mundane with the fantastic, which ultimately lends it an intrigue which its slowness might have undermined.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2013
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An elderly couple living on the coast of Mexico remember their son, who was killed trying to cross the border into the US.

Director: Eduardo Villanueva

Writer: Eduardo Villanueva

Starring: Adelelmo Jiménez, Carlota Rodriguez, Alfredo Llamas Herrera, Jesus Sernas

Year: 2013

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Mexico


EIFF 2013

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