The Dying Lands – Utama

There really isn’t much to Bolivia’s Oscar entry, Utama, in terms of story and character. There are basically only three main players, all largely confined to a tight space on a llama farm in the Andes. The plot is fairly simple, about an elderly couple trying to get by as severe drought makes life at times unbearable. The arrival of their grandson from a nearby city offers a chance for an exodus, but they’re hesitant to leave anything behind, even if it means dying on arid land.

The whole thing is very straightforward if that’s all you’re looking at. However, the beauty of Alejandro Laoyza Grisi’s understated film lies in visual metaphor and subtext, tying the fate of its lead to the home he loves so dearly, and showing in almost unfiltered detail how climate change can eradicate not just land, but an entire way of life.

José Calcina stars as Virginio, a Quechua farmer who has lived his entire life by routine. Every day he takes his llamas out to graze, walking them around the increasingly desolate lands around his home and the nearby village. His wife, Sisa (Luisa Quispe) tends to their very humble home and goes on a daily trek to town to fetch water. However, in their advanced age, this becomes more and more difficult. Virginio has a cough that gets progressively worse as the story wears on, and Sisa’s mobility has lessened, making it harder and harder to continue in their set ways, especially since water is extremely scarce. It has not rained in their area for nearly a year, and the town well has gone completely dry, leaving only a thin, shallow “river” as their sole source of any life-giving liquid.

Immediately you can tell there’s a large part of their identity that’s tied to the land, and this isn’t a new concept. Films about indigenous people are rife with stories like this. The same goes for Irish drama, Eastern folklore, and deep fantasy. But Utama fully commits itself to the allegory, with Virginio’s entire life force being an extension of this desert landscape. As his illness gets worse and worse, you feel the dryness creeping up on him, knowing that if he could just take a steady drink and rehydrate, he might have a chance. By the time he hikes up a sacred mountain, preparing to perform a ritual sacrifice in hopes of bringing rain, you can see his wizened face – at times looking a dead ringer for John Huston – seared and cracking like the barren ground all around him. He mutters, “You are dying,” as he looks upward, and it’s intentionally ambiguous as to whether he’s addressing the environment or himself.

When Virginio and Sisa’s grandson Clever (Santos Choque) arrives for a visit, the metaphor is reinforced through a more cultural and political angle. Clever lives in a nearby city with his father (Virgino and Sisa’s son), and only speaks Spanish. Both Virginio and Sisa can understand and communicate with him, but for the longest time Virginio openly converses with his wife in Quechua, using the language barrier to assert his authority and pride. He judges Clever for not comprehending, while at the same time relishing the fact that he can hold it over the young man as proof that he still has value. There’s a colonial element in his mind, seeing Clever as an interloper or even an invader, so in his own way, speaking his native tongue is a form of civil disobedience.

There are times when Virginio’s stubbornness threatens to drag the film down, especially when it comes to his relationship with Clever. This is mostly because it comes off as a tired “Old World Parent vs. New World Child” dynamic when really the script should lean into the real dichotomy of Virginio’s kinship with the land against Clever’s logical pragmatism. Neither side is inherently wrong in their ideas, but there are a few too many times when Virginio is obstinate for the sake of conflict.

That said, there is a heartwarming element at play when Virginio learns that Clever is about to become a father himself. He’s so committed to his own sophistry that he still won’t do anything for his own betterment, but the thought of a new life imbues him with a sense of purpose and the idea of renewal. Almost to a fault, Virginio is dead set on his place in the proverbial circle of life, and when he hears that the cycle will continue, it brings him a comfort and peace that he doesn’t have at any other point in the film.

In addition to the strong literary devices at play, the cinematography in this film is simply breathtaking. Grisi gives the film a wonderful sense of scale through the use of large vistas and landscape shots. The empty horizon serves as a constant reminder of just how desperate the situation really is. And despite Virginio’s constant protestations that “the rains will come soon,” you can see just how cloudless the sky is in just about every scene. It is blind faith and misplaced hope laid bare on the screen, while at the same time standing as a testament to Virginio’s resolve, as he rises with the oppressive sun each day to continue in his chosen rut.

The film asks some pretty insightful questions through this very simple narrative, mostly about what it means to truly live versus merely existing. Just about any reasonable person, in this case Clever acting as the audience cipher, would see how bleak the situation is and do whatever is possible to get Virginio and Sisa to save themselves and come to into the modern world. But in doing so, what is being sacrificed? Virginio “lives” in these highlands, with his wife, with his llamas, with his land, with what remains of his cultural identity. He would only “exist” anywhere else, and that’s simply not worth it to him, especially since the increasing exit of everyone around him leaves him and Sisa as possibly the last remnants of their way of life. There’s also a real tragedy in how much Sisa herself is caught in the middle of all of this. She wants a long, full life with her husband, but she also doesn’t want to give up everything she’s ever known. What is she to do other than worry?

It’s kind of amazing to me that a film as small as Utama can still feel so big. It’s all about perspective, be it the visual one we as an audience get in seeing the grand, eye-popping camera work, or the intimate, defining characteristics of Virginio’s worldview. Part of the beauty of all international cinema is its ability to give us a glimpse into sectors of the world we’d never otherwise occupy, be it physically or in thought. This movie is a solid example of that very thesis, taking us to a remote corner of the world, one that happens to be the entire world for one man.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever been to the Andes? Aren’t llamas just adorable as fuck? Let me know!

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