Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s “Utama” is a stark, elegiac memento of a vanishing culture, a way of life dying as our planet’s dry places dry up completely and vulnerable populations stare down their future as climate refugees.
Telling this story with non-actors (mostly), Grisi creates a somber, sad and documentary-real eulogy for the Quechua families facing the stark choices that changing circumstances have handed them.
Each day Virginio (José Calcina) awakens at dawn to the sight of his wife Sisi (Luisa Quispe) arising to start their day. She gives him buns to take out the door as he releases the llamas that are their livelihood from the stone corral behind their stone house, stone shed and outhouse. He will graze them in desert highlands where almost nothing is still green. She will plant beans and potatoes, water them from their well, and cook for when he comes home.
But their well has gone dry. She will have to trek to the village to fill a couple of buckets. The river is but a creek, and a long way to herd the llamas for a drink. They need it, as do Sisi and Virginio.
And then there’s the worrisome tubercular hack Virginio tries to hide from his wife. They are very old. Their burdens aren’t easing. And there is no water.
At some point, the women and men of the village (Chuvica is where this was filmed) of the arid plateau gather to talk about their crisis, the fact that it hasn’t rained for a year, that their wells and their llamas are dying of thirst.
Younger people gave up on this village some while ago, not necessarily with the blessings of their families. Now, the old women say that it’s time to “migrate to the city.” The old men grouse, deny and complain in Quechua and Spanish, with English subtitles.
“If we leave, our land will be left alone in silence.”
And Sisi and Virginio’s grandson Clever (Santos Choque) has shown up, “to deliver a message” from his father, Virginio gripes — “It’s time to move to the city with us.”
Grisi does a wonderful job of getting at just how difficult this decision is. Think of every aged relative you’ve had to take the car keys from or move into assisted living. Multiply that by an entire village, people who have lived, worked and died the same way for hundreds of years, and imagine the shock of what’s happening and the reluctance to accept it.
He immerses us in a world where the menfolk even turn to the old ways to try and “solve” this problem, “sowing” the mountain with water and an animal sacrifice in the hopes of bringing the rains back.
Virginio seems the most stubborn of all, refusing advice from a grandson who “doesn’t know how to read the signs,” the ones Virginio hopes will show that “the rains come and go, and will come again.”
The acting is natural, unaffected. And that goes for the storytelling as well. The first music we hear in this silent landscape is downbeat and dire. It underscores how the “solutions” presented here solve nothing.
The life disruption is borne through gritted teeth, a determination to hold out just a little longer, to make it to the finish line (death) before the other inevitability becomes unavoidable. And as we read between the lines, we can envision older generations worldwide facing this ugly future with the same denial, obstinance and dismay, a “change” that no one wants forced on everyone by the actions and inactions of a few.
Grisi has made a simple parable for life on Earth and the consequences the most remote people face from climate change, and a film that’s worth rooting for as “Utama” is Bolivia’s submission for this year’s Best International Feature competition at the Oscars.
Cast: José Calcina, Luisa Quispe and Santos Choque
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:28