Utama

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Utama
"Grisi has a background in photography and though the images are moving here, there's often a stillness to them and they are no less perfectly composed."

Wide open skies, quiet drama and loveable llamas are the hallmarks of quality shining out from Alejandro Loayza Grisi's drama, which is impressively measured for a debut feature. He whisks us to the Bolivian Highlands, where the arid earth speaks more than a thousand words to the challenges of the climate crisis and opens his film with just one of many simple but stunning images, of a man in silhouette as the sunrise splits the far horizon like an inferno.

The man is Virginio (José Calcina) an ageing Quechua shepherd, who daily takes his llamas out to graze, their bright pink wool tassels shining almost neon in the sun. Grisi has a background in photography and though the images are moving here, there's often a stillness to them and they are no less perfectly composed, whether it is the llamas, with their odd squeaky toy-like cry in the heat haze or the interiors of the home that Virginio shares with his wife Sisa (Luisa Quispe, Calcina's real-life wife and, like him, a non-professional actor). While Virginio makes his daily trek, Sisa has her own route march up to the village for water, although, in another nod to the increasing periods of drought, the well is running dry.

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If this is the old world, albeit with additional challenges, the new is represented by their grandson Clever (Santos Choque), who arrives from the city one day with canned goods, his mobile phone and a wish to take them away from all this. Virginio is a tough old boot, viewing his non-Quechuan speaking grandson as a "spoilt brat" and hiding a cough from Sisa that we hear raggedly cutting across the scenes where he is walking. Like everything here, Grisis is sure not to overlabour his point, telling us all we need to know about the stubborn old man in the way he gets up increasingly early to catch out Clever or enters into a weird battle of wills with the younger man by speeding up when they're out with the llamas so that he is always taking the lead. All the while the scoring from Cergio Prudencio uses traditional instruments like the pan pipes to unsettling effect.

Acting as a counterpoint to Clever and Virginio's strained relationship, is the quiet bond Virginio shares with Sisa, which is not nearly as tough as it might appear on the surface. Much of this is an unspoken connection that runs deeper than words. The revelations may be small in this film but the challenges are immense, as many of the remaining locals consider uprooting themselves for the city, Virginio is stubborn about where he wants to be with Sisa hovering somewhere in the halfway house of what she has known and the companionship of wider family. Grisi - who won Sundance's World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for the film - doesn't ask us to view this existence as idyllic or romantic but as something that is nonetheless precious on its own terms and deserving of respect from those who live otherwise.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2022
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In the Bolivian highlands, an elderly Quechua couple has been living the same daily life for years. When an uncommon long drought threatens their entire way of life, Virginio and his wife Sisa face the dilemma of resisting or being defeated by the environment and time itself.

Director: Alejandro Loayza Grisi

Writer: Alejandro Loayza Grisi

Starring: José Calcina, Luisa Quispe, Santos Choque

Year: 2022

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: Bolivia, Uruguay, France


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