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Utama review – Bolivian drama of big themes and bold visuals

Alejandro Loayza Grisi's debut explores intergenerational conflict and climate emergency through the story of two elderly farmers

Utama is a placid, gentle film, with a truly widescreen visual scope and big thematic ambitions. Set and shot high up in the Bolivian Altiplano (shooting took place 4200 metres above sea level), it tells the story of Virginio and Sisa (José Calcina and Luisa Quispe, both non-professionals), elderly herders struggling to deal with the persistent drought and their ageing bodies. Much of their village community is in the same boat: the well has dried up, the land is bone-dry, and people are gradually migrating to the cities. Grandson Clever arrives (Santos Choque, one of the few professional actors in the cast), and attempts to convince the two to come to the city, though he is met with intense stubbornness from Virginio.

This all sets up a moving story about intergenerational conflict and the climate emergency, right in the heart of a region at the very frontlines of collapsing ecosystems: climate breakdown begetting community breakdown. Clever, you sense, understands this dichotomy, but also wishes the best for his grandparents in their last years. Calcina and Quispe incidentally, are superbly cast, the lines on their faces telling a story, of a tough and honest life, all of their own.

Much of the magic of Utama comes from the frankly spectacular cinematography, with photographer-turned-first-time director Alejandro Loayza Grisi teaming up with DOP Barbara Alvarez (who has worked with Lucrecia Martel, amongst others). Granted, with a landscape like the Altiplano, a plateau in the heart of the Andes, you can get away with just pointing and shooting. But Grisi and Alvarez take pains to highlight the smallness and fragility of the humans who live here; Virginio gazing up at the dry mountain that ought to have a glacier-fed lake in its heart; the couple’s house, alone on the plateau; the miles of walking required to reach the village for water.

It’s all effective enough, telling a relevant story about serious issues facing the world today. And yet, I wonder if Utama’s relevancy is undone somewhat by its own aesthetic choices. The success of a film like Utama is counted not by box office receipts, but in cultural impact. In this regard, it’s one of a million films of a similar ilk that populate the film festival circuit and which occasionally make it into distribution, telling quote/unquote “important” stories in a methodical, slow-paced, social realist style.

There is a limit to the impact of these aesthetic choices, hedging films into a narrow domain, one in which you’re largely preaching to the converted. This isn’t Utama’s fault, in and of itself, but it does speak to a wider infrastructural malaise amongst the production and distribution of these films: in the face of an existential worldwide threat, is retreating to the arthouse and to the film festival circuit the best course of action?

Perhaps this is all besides the point – the film is the film, and it is a rather fine one, defined by well-directed acting and some jaw-dropping visuals. Here's hoping Grisi has the chance to make a bigger impact in the future.

Utama is released in UK cinemas on 25 November.

Where to watch

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