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The Great Movement review – a challenging portrait of labour in La Paz

Bolivian workers find themselves afflicted with a strange disease in writer-director Kiro Russo's opaque but not unrewarding mystery

An image of a white canine smash-cutting into a close-up of a man in his death throes. A sudden detour to a Thriller-esque music video in night-time La Paz. A looming moon in the night sky. A shot of a shaman deep in a trance. Every now and then, a startling image appears to shake us awake from The Great Movement's hazy stupor. These images have an indelible, fable-like quality, and in a film that is frequently oblique and deliberately challenging they are welcome on the basis of simply being elegant and powerful.

This kind of essayistic, philosophical filmmaking relies primarily on two things: the ability to find such images, and a very specific rhythm in the editing that allows them to groove their way into your mind. The Great Movement does superbly with the former, but not so much with the latter. Sometimes the film's images don’t quite coalesce into a complete atmosphere or idea. The sudden shift into music video territory happens more than once, and is brilliantly done, but feels as though it comes from an entirely difficult film.

The surrealistic imagery is tied into a loose, though staunchly political narrative, making use of non-professional, indigenous actors and documentary elements. We principally follow Elder (Julio César Ticona), a miner who walks to the Bolivian capital of La Paz with his friends to protest for better work conditions. Here, he falls under a mysterious illness; a woman claiming to be his godmother, Mama Pancha (Francisca Arce de Aro), takes him under her wing and sends him to the shaman Max (Max Eduardo Bautista Uchasara), whose attempts to heal Elder steers the film in increasingly surreal directions.

The idea of capitalism and horrendous working conditions as a phantasmagoric disease has a great visual pull. Director Kiro Russo keeps the focus on Elder’s present-day condition, detailing his poverty, hunger and back-breaking labour in La Paz, making great use of the city's verticality as it nestles beneath the Andes, before pulling away into the film’s nocturnal, dream-like second half. But the opacity does not mesh comfortably with the political elements – it is as though the imagery and the politics are not onscreen simultaneously.

The plot bears similarity to last year’s The Fever, directed by Maya Da-Rin, also about indigenous workers in South America becoming afflicted with a mysterious disease. But in the highly stylised moments dotted throughout there are arguably more similarities to Pedro Costa’s work in Vitalina Varela and Horse Money, albeit with less laser focus. Yet this is only Russo’s second feature – one senses this is the work of a talented director who is almost there, both aesthetically and philosophically. Should his next film strike that balance, it will be worth every effort to track it down.

The Great Movement is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 15 April.

Where to watch

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