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Utama: A Moving Tale of Hard Work and Familial Survival

Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber.

Arriving this week from Bolivia is the U.S. theatrical release of the stunning Utama, the country’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film. A visually resplendent film set and shot in the arid Bolivian highlands, Utama marks the film debut of photographer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Loayza Grisi, winner of the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema Dramatic) at the Sundance Film Festival and without question a director to watch for the future.

Already having made a name for itself at Sundance and festivals worldwide, Utama is a quiet, moving, and ultimately cautionary tale of hard work and familial survival. Loayza Grisi’s film follows an elderly Quechua couple through the still, quiet motions of their daily routines. Virginio (José Calcina) tends to the small herd of llamas, taking them out each day to graze. Sisa (Luisa Quispe) tends the house and carries water—each day, for miles. Between the two they eke out a meager living in the simple home where they have lived in tranquility for years.

Virginio (José Calcina) and Clever (Santos Choque) tend to the small herd of llamas, taking them out each day to graze in "Utama."
Virginio (José Calcina) and Clever (Santos Choque) tend to the small herd of llamas, taking them out each day to graze. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber.

But things are starting to change. A long drought has made grazing more difficult and water more precious. Each day’s journey has become longer, more arduous. The two speak few words—mostly terse utterances about their chores—but the camera captures each furtive glance and small gesture. (The audio also captures Virginio’s labored breathing as he tackles his chores—an ominous bit of foreshadowing). Even as they toil and age, Virginio and Sisa remain in love, with each other, with their home, and their land.

The two greet the arrival of their grandson, whom an acid-tongued Virginio dubs, ironically, “Clever” (Santos Choque), with surprisingly conflicting perspectives. Sisa welcomes Clever and his family news with warmth. Virginio constantly berates him for his youth and callowness. Clever realizes that the changing climate means the land can no longer sustain his grandparents’ way of life and suggests to them a move to the city, where they can age more comfortably. Neither, unsurprisingly, wants to move from their home. To do so would be to admit a kind of defeat.

Virginio (José Calcina) at rest in the mountainside in "Utama."
Virginio (José Calcina) realizes his land can no longer sustain him. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber.

This aspect of Utama‘s narrative is nearly universal. Anyone who has cared for an aging parent or grandparent knows how bound to place one can become, how difficult it can be to leave the only home one’s known for generations. A changing climate, meanwhile, exacerbates already-poor conditions and makes once-fertile land uninhabitable. Utama subtly documents the universal effects of climate change on indigenous peoples through an intimate, highly personal narrative of two aging spouses who know the end is near. It is, in its own way, as moving a tale of elder care as Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but its focus is as much on the changing climate as the march of time.

In the highlands of Bolivia where the film takes place, more than 3500 meters above sea level, rainy seasons are shorter and droughts last longer. Glaciers are thawing, making water more scarce, nights colder, days hotter. For the peoples indigenous to the area, the land—already difficult—is becoming unlivable, forcing a slow diaspora leaving the area uninhabited. Utama presents, onscreen, an historically underrepresented people, telling a region’s story through the specifics of one family’s crisis.

Cinematographer Barbara Álvarez’s artfully composed compositions make Utama as beautiful a film as can be imagined. The vibrant colors, rich fabrics, intimate portraits, and stunning landscapes are shot in a fine-grain widescreen that captures the family and their land with an uncompromising elegance. Some of the landscapes will recall Sergio Leone or Alejandro Jodorowsky. Nearly every frame of the film would make an award-winning still photograph by itself.

Outside her small home, Sisa (Luisa Quispe) waits for Virginio in "Utama."
Sisa (Luisa Quispe) waits for Virginio to return. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber.

As the long-married couple Virginio and Sisa, Calcina and Quispe are excellent. Their words are few, but their gestures, posture, sighs, glances, and movements all eloquent. Loayza Grisi spied the two non-actors outside their house while scouting locations and pleaded with them to portray his characters (a younger family member finally persuaded them). With their performances, Utama is as much a love story as it is a narrative of climate change. Both actors are capable of conveying meaning through the subtlest of motions. The film’s conclusion is one that will resonate long after the film’s closing credits roll.

Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) embrace in "Utama."
Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) embrace. Photo: courtesy Kino Lorber.

Utama has more than a little in common with the equally splendid, resonant Dos Estaciones, Juan Pablo Gonzalez’s equally sobering Sundance-prize winner from Mexico, also enjoying a limited theatrical run in the U.S. Both films take place in arid highlands where the persistent effects of climate change threaten the generations-long livelihoods of native families there. Both are photographed in a stunning, resplendent documentary style and feature uncommonly resilient women at their center. And both offer touching, elegiac perspectives on their well-drawn characters.

Utama‘s is ultimately the story of a people betrayed by the changing climate of their region, and one which we are fortunate to have a director-writer like Alejandro Loayza Grisi, who grew up in nearby La Paz where Aymara migrants from the nearby Altiplano countryside resettled just a few kilometers away, able to tell. With his and cinematographer Alvarez’s uncommonly acute visuals, Utama makes for a significant tale of intergenerational conflict and the consequences of climate change.

Utama opens on Friday, November 4 at Film Forum in New York City, followed by runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and a writer-reviewer at Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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