mon 28/11/2022

Utama review - incandescent portrait of a dying way of life in Bolivia | reviews, news & interviews

Utama review - incandescent portrait of a dying way of life in Bolivia

Utama review - incandescent portrait of a dying way of life in Bolivia

Anthropological film-making meets luscious imagery in this moving drama

Surviving together: Luisa Quispe and her husband José Calcina playing Virginio and Sisa

Utama won the World Dramatic Prize at Sundance this year and is tipped for an Oscar nomination, too. The film is set in a remote region in Bolivia’s arid highlands. Its gentle pace and non-professional actors give it a documentary feel but there is real narrative skill deployed. 

Director Alejandro Loyza Grisi started off his career as a stills photographer before moving into film and it shows in the stunningly beautiful images he’s captured with cinematographer Babara Álvarez. 

Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) are an elderly Quechua couple who have always lived in the same small village; they’ve raised their family there and made a living as subsistence farmers with a small herd of llamas. Unprecedented droughts, doubtless caused by climate change, have devastated their way of life. Many locals have left and moved to the city, including the couple’s adult children. There’s no water left in the village pump, the remaining villagers have to walk to a stream and carry home heavy containers. As a character observes, “Time has gotten tired, we have to sow water”.  

Theirs is an ancient way of life that is being forced to change by the effects of far-away industry. Even the condors are struggling to survive and the llamas with their incongruously cheery pink ribbons graze meagrely on tufts of grass in the cracked desert soil.  

When Virginio and Sisa’s grandson Clever (Santos Choque) arrives on a motorbike from the city, his phone text alerts are disconcerting in a soundscape dominated by the wind whistling and the llamas grumbling. He’s come to persuade his grandparents that now is the time to move to the city, especially as Virginio is ill.  

Utama means “our home” in one of the indigenous languages in Bolivia. The film’s director felt that drama would be more effective in conveying his peoples’ plight than documentary. José Calcina and Luisa Quispe are a real-life married couple and utterly credible in their roles. Loyza Grisi worked closely with the pair and the local community to capture the rituals of Andean culture. Only Santos Choque playing Clever the grandson had trained as an actor.

The fusion in Utama of beautifully orchestrated images and warm, convincing performances invites its audience to immerse itself for 90 minutes in a way of life that is not only inaccessible to westerners but endangered. It’s well worth it. 

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