Writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s quiet drama Utama provides a welcome respite from loud, exposition-heavy Hollywood fare. The title translates as “our home,” as the film studies the meaning of “home,” our attachment to it, our stubbornness to leave, and our loyalty to whatever we consider home. Grisi matter-of-factly portrays the effects of global warming on a small, remote Bolivian community and how its members have become as much a part of the landscape as the barren mountains and desert surrounding it.
Such is the case with Virginio (José Calcina) and his wife, Sisa (Luisa Quispe), an elderly Quechua couple who have lived away from society their entire lives. A vast field of nothingness surrounds their wooden shack. They sleep on separate cots in a tiny room. Virginio tends to the llamas. Sisa takes care of the house, their dried-out garden, and makes dinner. Sisa visits the village, miles away, to bring back water, two buckets at a time. When that water runs out, a slither of a muddy river ends up being the community’s sole source. Folks start to leave due to the dwindling supplies. Yet Virginio stubbornly endures.
The old man grows increasingly concerned about his animals, who have trouble walking in the dry heat. Sadly, Virginio has his own health issue: a persistent cough that signifies a serious condition. In addition, the arrival of his grandson, Clever (Santos Choque), frustrates him. Skeptical about the boy’s intentions and bitter about their past, Virginio reluctantly allows his grandson to join him in the early-morning llama grazing. Yet, when Clever brings up moving to the city, Virginio snaps, “We are fine here.” A tug-of-war of sorts forms between them. Things get exacerbated further when the llamas start dying and eventually get lost.
“…when Clever brings up moving to the city, Virginio snaps…”
“You are dying,” Virginio whispers at one point, staring at a gorgeous and desolate mountain vista. Barbara Alvarez’s stunning cinematography throughout Utama depicts every crack in the dried-out land, every crease in the character’s leathery skins. Moreover, she’s a fan of symmetry: the opening awe-inducing shot of a man walking towards an apocalyptic tangerine sunset is just a glimpse of things to come.
Small moments resonate powerfully. When Sisa first tells Virginio about the water, his increased breathing says it all. In another stark moment, the old man stares at his reflection on the surface of what little water they have until a vulture flies behind him. It’s a jarring premonition against a crystal-clear sky. Finally, there are instances of tenderness: Virginio lowers his head on Sisa’s lap for a little while, the death of a llama, or the sacrifice of another llama to the gods of rain. The image of Sisa getting water from the narrowest stream, folks in colorful garb washing clothes and themselves along the one last remaining water source, is bound to stay in the viewer’s mind for a while after the credits roll.
Calcina is wonderful as Virginio: laconic, resolute, and proud – perhaps too proud as he stubbornly refuses to leave his home and sell potatoes for a living. Clearly, there’s history between him and his son, whom we never see, and the old man would slowly perish under the merciless sun rather than live according to his son’s, or society’s, rules. Quispe delivers a tender, introverted performance, while Choque brings a welcome jolt of energy and vibrancy to the proceedings.
“Time has gotten tired, Virginio,” someone says. An elegiac, minimalist fable, Utama is about many things: global warming, survival, our connections to each other, and our priorities. The silences propel the narrative forward, the wide-open spaces that sear themselves into the mind. But hope prevails. “Rain is coming,” the characters keep reassuring themselves. Whether they will live long enough to witness it remains to be seen.
"…a welcome respite from loud, exposition-heavy Hollywood fare."