Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film will be released at Film Forum on Friday, November 4.
According to Andean legend, when the condor, an imposing South American bird with a long lifespan, decides there’s no longer a purpose to keep on flapping its enormous wings, the animal commits suicide by diving into the rocks. In Bolivian writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s sumptuously rendered debut feature “Utama” (Our Home), a comparable descent into hopelessness occurs for a human counterpart.
A respiratory ailment, rhythmic heavy breathing—like a water drip in the middle of the night—perpetually accompanies Virginio (Jose Calcina). Despite his deteriorating health, the elderly Quechua man remains resolute on staying in the now desolate and eroded Bolivian highlands with his wife Sisa (Luisa Quispe). Most of their neighbors have migrated in desperation because the rain that hasn’t been on schedule for a while. Scarce water puts their herding livelihood at dire risk.
“Utama” plays like a spiritual cousin to Peru’s 2018 Academy Awards entry “Wiñaypacha” (Eternity), about an aging couple in a remote corner of the Andes yearning for their son to return to visit them. Like them, the husband and wife in Loayza Grisi’s take on a nearly identical premise preserve their ancient way of living even though securing the most basic necessities has become extremely laborious. After all, Virginio thinks, what would they even do in the city?
However, with the arrival of their adult grandson Clever (Santos Choque), the director introduces a catalyst that precipitates the stubborn man’s battle for retaining agency. And while “Wiñaypacha” constructs its narrative with sheer realism that makes the viewer question whether it’d be better described as non-fiction, “Utama” is embellished with a few sublime touches of magical realism and Bárbara Alvarez’s gorgeously precise cinematography.
Early on, she frames Virginio’s reflection inside a pool of water with the open sky as background providing enough room in the composition for a flying condor to be added in post-production. The aesthetic meticulousness of that shot serves the filmmaker in reinforcing the winged motif as omen. Another standout shot sees Virginio in an angelical glow walking towards mountains drenched in soft twilight light.
Whether maximizing the potential of mirrors and windows for dramatic effect in this inhospitable terrain with the help of art director Valeria Wilde or simply filling our view with the couple’s adorable pack of llamas weaning bright pink ribbons on their ears, the images conjured in “Utama” momentarily let us into the language of the unknown, of what we can not comprehend unless we are as in tune with the land as those whose existence is so deeply tied to it.
Clever’s intrusion, demanding his grandparents move to an urban environment, is met with rejection on Virginio’s part and hesitation from Sisa. Loayza Grisi limits dialogue-driven scenes, perhaps to rely more on his first-time actors’ magnetic stoicism than their text delivery. But the pointed lines that stay help highlight that it is not only the land that’s perishing at the hands of voracious modernity and progress elsewhere, but the entirety of their worldview, including their language. Clever doesn’t understand more than a few words of Quechua, which widens the divide Virginio already dreads. Spanish, the language of the colonizers, is a forced middle ground for their communication.
For all its otherworldly beauty, “Utama” could benefit from slightly more robust dramatic beats to complement the hyper-sensorial experience that imbues in the spectator, especially in addressing the displacement of Indigenous communities across the Americas and beyond. Not that it needed to be turned into a social justice diatribe, but a sprinkle of directness on the large picture of the issue, brought upon both by governmental neglect and as the early victims of the climate crisis that looms over all of us.
Still, the visually beguiling effort, donned with an original filmic idiosyncrasy, from a promising storyteller in the region does expand on other pertinent themes in an effort, it seems, to not simplistically glorify tradition. Loayza Grisi hints at Virginio’s patriarchal mentality, sometimes in the subtext and others in his outspoken fatalistic desire for Sisa to stop breathing at the same time as him. Sisa’s voice rarely rises, she picks her battles, and knows more than she leads on, more importantly she is not completely opposed to change if it means more time with her progeny.
A man who no longer feels in charge of his destiny, abandoned by the elements and betrayed by his body, he faces a spiritual crucible. Calcina’s performance involves a particular physicality, that of a gravely ill person with a superlative will to withstand the trial in hopes of prompt improvement. Every step he takes comes off as indignantly defiant. Unable to accept the sincerity in Clever’s concern, he swears off any solution that requires leaving all he has ever treasured, for better, and in the current state of affairs, for worse.
For Virginio, what Clever asks of him isn’t dissimilar to uprooting a tropical flower and demand it flourishes in the arid desert. He belongs in his home, not the handcrafted building where decades of memories and arduous work reside, but in the grandeur of everything the eye can see until the horizon forces the earth to meet with the heavens. If only the condor could see that perhaps, even if not with as much freedom, there might be a reason to fly for a little longer over a different topography.
“Utama” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.