‘Utama’ Review: This Bitter Earth

In Bolivia’s official submission to the next Oscars, an old Quechua couple struggle to find water to sustain them, their crops and llamas.

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By Manohla Dargis

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The Bolivian movie “Utama” pulls you in with an uneasy mix of beauty and dread. A fictional tale that draws from real life, it takes place in the Andean plateau — the Altiplano — an arid, mountainous strip with altitudes nearing 14,000 feet above sea level that runs through western Bolivia. There, on hard, cracked land in a tiny, adobe home, a wizened Quechua couple of indeterminate age with no electricity and few outside contacts, yet graced with unflagging fortitude, wait for the rain that will sustain them, their meager crops and small herd of llamas.

Stooped with age, Virginio and Sisa — José Calcina and Luisa Quispe, both nonprofessional actors — scarcely speak, the texture and arc of their lives instead conveyed through quotidian rituals, small gestures and stoic expressions. They watch their animals, they watch the world, they watch each other. They also struggle, their agonies weighing most visibly on Virginio. Every morning, and with greater difficulty, he guides the llamas, their ears festooned with pink tassels, across the parched land in search of grass. The arduousness of his days makes for restless nights and a wheezing that Sisa somehow doesn’t notice.

The Bolivian writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi has a background in still photography, and it shows. He has a feel for the drama of color, form, scale and light, as well as a sensitive collaborator in his cinematographer, Bárbara Alvarez (her credits include “The Headless Woman”). With a lucid eye and a steady camera, he captures the region’s brutal beauty, using stark contrasts — like birds-eye views of isolated houses and people — to accentuate its extremes. At other times, he zeros in on similarities, like those between the weathered faces and the desiccated terrain, suggesting ideas that the characters don’t voice.

As the days tick by quietly and more and more disastrously, Virginio’s health and the area’s declining water sources begin to blur, rendering a near-totemic character increasingly symbolic. At one point, Virginio and Sisa’s far more loquacious grandson, Clever (Santos Choque), shows up, and the family’s history begins to emerge. Clever and his father want the couple to move to a city, an idea that Virginio rejects. He has strong, apparently traditional opinions, including about the gendered division of labor. It’s Sisa’s job to collect water, he insists, even when she’s forced to walk a long distance to fill their buckets at a shrinking river.

Virginio is clinging to a life that’s disappearing as rapidly as the area’s water. That’s painful, no question, but the complexities of the world that he and Sisa inhabit are as frustratingly elusive as their inner lives. That’s too bad, although this lack of specifics also helps explain why “Utama” has traveled widely on the international festival circuit. (It’s Bolivia’s Oscar entry.) The Altiplano has long endured periods of extended drought that global warming has worsened, leading to Bolivia’s second largest lake drying up and rural migration. Yet while climate change shadows every anxious discussion here, it also remains at a safe remove, a vague threat embedded in an aesthetically soothing package and gently salted with tears.

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. In theaters.

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