Utama. Like an Eagle on a Rock
“Do you know how the condor dies?”, Virginio, the protagonist of Utama (Our House), asks Clever, his nephew, who came in from the city. Old Virginio is very much preoccupied with this topic: he can feel his own death approaching, but, just like the shepherd at the center of the Romanian ballad Miorița (The Lambkin), he does nothing to prevent it, nor to even delay it, to his nephew’s exasperation.
Of course, the comparison to Miorița might seem far-fetched: the Vrancea Mountains are but hills in comparison to the Andes, and our humble sheep pale in comparison to Bolivian llamas when it comes to style, with their chic little pink tassels wrapped around their ears. But there’s a certain pastoral understanding of life and death that does, indeed, manage to transcend these distances. And that is the oft-misunderstood “passive” attitude, which can be summarized thusly: Virginio doesn’t rebel against the disappearance of the light. Or, at the very least, not outwardly. If he does indeed rebel, then his revolt is an inner one, that still lies under the sign of acceptance. And this acceptance is not the result of passiveness or cowardliness, but rather, of an understanding of naturalness that implies a beginning and an ending.
An ending that seems to be coming for everyone and everything: the plot of Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut feature, which won the Transsylvania Trophy at this year’s edition of TIFF, is set during a seemingly unending drought, sonically punctuated sonically by almost-apocalyptic musical and sound design tones. The drought pushes people from Virginio’s Quechua community to abandon their lands. Not Virginio, however, who is amongst the few who decide to stay behind, despite the dark clouds on the horizon. And the stubbornness with which Virginio accepts his fate is anything but passive: on the contrary, Virginio makes an active choice to not abandon his home, despite any reasonable motives and his nephew’s insistence that he should join him in the city.
Even though Virginio’s decision doesn’t only affect him, but also his wife, Sisa. Their relationship lies at the heart of the film, maybe even more so than the one between Virginio and Clever. Grisi chose to only case unprofessional actors in his film, with the notable exception of Santos Choque, the actor who performs the role of Clever (who doesn’t have any other roles on his IMDB page, anyways). This decision accounts for the majority of the film’s merits. José Calcina și Luisa Quispe, the actors who perform Virginio and Siso, are married in real life, and this is visible in many of their scenes. First of all, they seem to be a couple that understands each other without having to even speak. That doesn’t mean they don’t talk to each other: instead, they avoid talking about truly important things. Like Viginio’s foreboding cough, which he tries to hide from Sisa. Still, their interactions are overwhelmingly warm, their gestures and lines bearing a familiarity that is very hard to fake or imitate, and that is truly touching.
Virginio and Sisa speak Quechua, a language that, just like the traditions of their community, is also facing extinction, albeit a slower one. For instance, Clever’s generation doesn’t speak Quechua – a fact that Virginio, who clings to his language just like he clings to the place that he calls “home”, constantly deplores. Thus, the natural intergenerational tension between the two is doubled by this tension between Quechua, the language of the land, and Spanish, the language of the colonizer. In one of the film’s most interesting sequences, Virginio, Sisa and Clever are seen dining together, while a frustrated Virginio starts speaking Quechua to Sisa, as if Clever were not also present, only to then address his nephew directly, still in Quechua.
The truth is that Clever’s reality is not at all similar to Virginio and Sisa’s reality: coming in from the city, he spends most of his time with his eyes locked in on his phone (WhatsApp’s irritating message jingle is repeatedly used in the film, in ingenious ways). Still, despite the fact that Clever doesn’t seem to understand Virginio’s vehement opposition to the idea of leaving, it is him, his descendent, that Virginio chooses to share the sentiment of his impending death with.
The bodily degradation that Virgino feels is mirrored in the film by the climate breakdown that effects the otherwise extraordinary landscapes of Bolivia. The film’s approach uses static shorts, evem though its contains a handful of frames where the camera closes in, then zooms out from the characters (which are eye-catching precisely because they’re rare). But despite of the fact that there fixed, wide-lens natural shots which constitute the film’s background are unquestionably impressive, they also have something of a National Geographic-like quality to them, much rather brining to mind the kind of materials that makes one expect the voice of some British-accented narrator to start babbling about flora, fauna and other geography-related matters.
In this instance, Grisi’s professional background acts both as an advantage and a hindrance: the fact that the director began his career by working as a photographer is notable, then as a director of photography, in projects like Planet Bolicia, a documentary series that aired on television. In Utama, Grisi is often seduced by the extremely impressive landscapes, so he ends up languishing, lingering on them, “searching” for compositions that he can then visually speculate upon. There is a certain self-satisfaction in these shots, however: it’s as if the director is expecting the grandeur of the natural landscapes that he’s filming to automatically transfer onto the film. Well, this mollification doesn’t quite happen, and that makes the moments where these attempts at self-mystification all the more visible, such as the sequence with Virginio and the condor, which, while visually interesting, not have the kind of impact that Grisi most probably intended to obtain. And that’s because his landscapes, grandiose as they may be, still lack the sheer force of his unprofessional actors’ faces. Fortunately, the film has a lot more to offer than just a mere cinematic tour of Bolivia, and in this particular case, the film’s cast proves itself to be a lifesaver.
As for how the condor dies, the answer is: in great style.
(Română) Alejandro Loayza Grisi | Marcos Loayza | Federico Moreira
(Română) José Calcina, Luisa Quispe, Candelaria Quispe, Placide Ali
(Română) Bolivia, Uruguay, France