Living within a suburban environment, it's very easy to become complacent to the very immediate threat of the climate crisis. Much of our discourse is around the incoming disaster, that if we don't change our ways as soon as possible, the possible will become inevitable. In truth, there are parts of our planet where the inevitable has already arrived, landscapes, ecosystems and peoples practically past the point of no return. 'Utama', the debut feature from Bolivian filmmaker and photographer Alejandro Loayza Grisi, is an immediate and devastating reminder of this, using a very human story to address a catastrophe unfolding right before our eyes.
On the vast Andes plateaus in Bolivia, llama farmers and elderly indigenous Quechea couple Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisi (Luisa Quispe) face a devastating dilemma. It hasn't rained in over a year, leaving the ground dry and barren. Nothing will grow, and in the nearby town the water wells have completely dried up. To add salt to the wound, Virginio is plagued by a growing, rasping cough that he tries as much as possible to keep from his wife. Their grandson Clever (Santos Choque) comes to visit, trying to convince them to move to the city, but Virginio is certain the rain will come, even as his neighbours all move away, his health deteriorates and the landscape itself continues to die.
Grisi began his career as a photographer, and this is apparent from the first moments of 'Utama'. You are immediately taken by the way in which the camera captures this epic, almost biblical landscape of endless dry plains, but where another filmmaker might see this as a dead space, Grisi immediately finds the life and beauty in it. The tension of 'Utama' hinges on the idea that Virginio has a reason to want to stay here, and the beauty Grisi and cinematographer Barbara Alvarez find in this place, the texture and the colours and the scale of it, become vital in communicating this. There's no artifice to what we are seeing on screen, all the way down to Grisi casting non- professional actors and real-life couple Calcina and Quispe as the protagonists. We need to believe this story and this world to fully understand the tragedy of what is unfolding.
Despite all the signs around him, Virginio refuses to accept the inevitable, both with what is around him and what is happening within his body. His refusal to change is absolute, even down to refusing to help Sisi retrieve water. With the wells dry, she must walk to the river, but in her advancing years, this task is becoming more difficult. This is her job though, Virginio states. He tends to the llamas, she gets the water. Even though the traditional ways of living are starting to fall apart, he holds onto them with a firm grip. Over the course of the film, that grip tightens with white-knuckle desperation, all the more to hold on to what he has and to strike out, especially towards Clever, when anyone gets in his way. The threat of collapse is ever-present, not just in the way Grisi captures the crumbling landscape, but in the subtle yet harrowing choice to punctuate the film with the sound of Virginio's laboured breathing, as if his loss of breath is the earth itself being chocked.
And yet, what keeps he and Sisi going is the hope that things will change, that the rain will come or that his cough is nothing more. It is a hope tearing the disparate members of this community apart, but without it, Virginio and Sisi cannot wake early and tend to their tasks. Their farm provides the parameters for their lives and their relationship, a steady repetitive dance where each knows their place and has comfort in the presence of the other. The coup of casting a real couple - one with no acting experience - is how truthful their affection is for one another. Rather than being a hard, harsh film, there's a delicate beauty and melancholy to 'Utama', some of the most powerful moments coming from the smallest of interactions or touches. A gulf is starting to appear between Virginio and Sisi, his determination to remain blinding him to her very real emotional needs, but you can feel them always reaching across that gulf to one another - that even as they sleep in separate beds, they are in this together, there for one another. For Sisi, the greatest betrayal comes when Virginio isn't honest with her, doesn't let her in. For two people who have never performed in front of a camera before, both Calcina and Quispe are extraordinary, startlingly honest and emotionally generous, and Grisi captures them with the same delicacy as Chloe Zhao at her best in 'The Rider' (2017) and 'Nomadland' (2020).
Where another filmmaker might see this as a dead space, Grisi immediately finds the life and beauty in it.
The arrival of Clever comes like a comet to Virginio, a reminder of the modern world on the other side of the horizon. His grandson's smartphone and jeans are alien objects, looked at with suspicion. The couple speak to one another in Quechua, but can only converse with Clever in Spanish, another fracture in the hermetically sealed home Virginio is trying to preserve. Clever's presence creates significant tension between the three, but he hasn't come to dismiss their way of life. He helps his grandfather, supports his grandmother, even takes initiative when the occasion calls for it. The tension is in the truth his presence brings, his insistence that they come and live in the city with him. He is reiterating the same conversations Virginio has had with his neighbours as they pack up and leave. Clever feels like another nail in the coffin, his coffin.
Perhaps what is most devastating about 'Utama' is that it doesn't feel like a call to action or a demand for change. It feels like a melancholy requiem, as if it is capturing the last gasps of a way of life and an ecosystem before it disappears completely. The rain may come, this drought may end, as Virginio insists has happened before and has to happen again, but this time, will there be anyone there to see it. The community is old and dwindling, the lifestyle is getting harder and harder, and death hovers like a spectre, a condor circling above. Virginio tells Clever a story that, when the condor decides it has reached the end of its usefulness, it will fly to the top of the mountain and dash itself on the rocks. The question haunting him is whether he himself has reached his end, and if he chooses to give up and leave, there will be nothing left of the life he and Sisi lived and the traditions they continued.
'Utama' is a difficult film to shake off. It would have been enough to see such a powerful portrait of our planet in its death throes, but it is made all the more potent by its innumerable flashes of beauty and magic, the exquisite sadness mixed with delicate moments of life and affection. There is so much humanity in this film, Alejandro Loayza Grisi allowing these people and this world the chance to be as it is, even as they start to fade away. Incredibly cinematic, consistently breathtaking and beautifully heartbreaking, 'Utama' is a remarkable debut from an exciting filmmaker and an elegiac eulogy for what we are on the brink of losing.