Streaming Review

Valley of Souls review – stylish and affecting journey through divided Columbia

An extraordinary first-time performance anchors a raw and mythic story of a father searching for the bodies of his murdered sons

With his first feature, Colombian director Nicolás Rincón Gille makes an indelible impression. His Valley of Souls reimagines the Book of Job through the lens of Colombia’s traumatic early 21st century history, making for a film that speaks powerfully to a specific period yet retains an otherworldly timelessness as its hero perseveres through impossible pain.

Returning home from a night’s work, fisherman Jose (José Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo) finds his daughter cowering in the undergrowth behind their home. She delivers the horrendous news that the AUC (a far-right paramilitary group) has taken and executed Jose’s adult sons, Rafael and Dionisio, dumping their bodies in the vast river where Jose fishes. Overwhelmed by grief and powerless rage, Jose determines to find his sons’ bodies and grant them a proper burial.

It’s a raw story rooted in historical fact – the AUC were well known in the late 90s and early 2000s for massacring civilians – but Gille gives it a dreamily mythic quality, too. Jose receives benevolent visitations from the dead, but also has to undergo bizarre, ritualistic trials, like eating bowl after bowl of soup at gunpoint while discussing the Tour de France with a paramilitary commander.

Plenty of other surreal moments sear themselves into your brain, with perhaps the most striking being Jose slowly sailing past a paramilitary beach party, hypnotic and sinister in equal measure, the dancers guarded by uniformed men with machine guns. It ends up being a very tasteful way to approach this grim history – sometimes perhaps even too tasteful, keeping the audience at arm’s length from the true bleakness of Jose’s situation – as well as allowing for some unforgettable imagery, a remarkable achievement for a debut director.

Not only does Valley of Souls mark Gille’s first film, it’s also the first screen role for lead actor Lobo, and it would be hard to overstate how astonishing his work here is. He gives a monumental, immensely moving performance in a role that would prove testing for any seasoned actor, showing us a man whose very soul has been pulled taut by the depravity he has to face down.

Little details drive home the heartbreak of Jose’s loss – the fact that his sons were wearing matching personalised football kits when they were taken is almost too much to bear – and Lobo matches these moments with wrenching, complex expressions of grief. Gille’s surreal style never undercuts these visceral emotions, instead folding mystical beauty into the tragedy as Jose keeps encountering people who share names with his beloved family members. Some are kind and giving, others opportunistic cowards, but, as if instructed by a higher power, all push his journey forward to its melancholic yet cathartic conclusion.

For some, Valley of Souls will move too slowly, and its luxurious running time, combined with its long, static-camera takes might prove patience-testing. Yet, if you have the staying power, this is a richly detailed story of national tragedy and familial responsibility that is full of rewards for attentive viewers, fronted by one of the most remarkable breakout performances you’ll see all year.

Valley of Souls is now available to stream on MUBI.

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