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SUNDANCE 2022 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Review: Utama

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- Alejandro Loayza Grisi crafts a highly promising, existentialist and mystical first feature film about a family of three Quechua Indians against the spectacular backdrop of the Bolivian Altiplano

Review: Utama

"If you knew how to read the signs, you’d already know.” “What signs? Everything is telling us it’s time to leave this place." The fact that two generations are at loggerheads - a grandfather and his grandson - isn’t particularly surprising, but when it’s a matter of life and death and ancestral beliefs, and when there’s a third party involved, the debate proves far harder to resolve. Such is the subject-matter tackled with great humility, simplicity, precision and control by Bolivian filmmaker Alejandro Loayza Grisi in his first feature film Utama [+see also:
trailer
interview: Alejandro Loayza
film profile
]
, which was recently discovered within the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic competition.

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For Quechua Indians, man and nature are one. But on the Bolivian Altiplano, in the immense desert plains framed from afar by the Andean mountains, austerity reaches levels of markedly rare intensity. Here, in the middle of nowhere, is where Virginio (José Calcina) and his wife Sisa (Luisa Quispe) live. 80 years old, the former still takes their herd of llamas out to graze while his spouse takes care of their modest house and carries buckets of water home from the village. Theirs is a routined existence of very few words, which three events turn upside down. On the one hand, it hasn’t rained for a year and the region’s inhabitants are despairing and departing. On the other, Virginio’s breathing is becoming increasingly laboured, a fact he hides from Sisa. Last but not least, their grandson Clever (Santos Choque) turns up on a visit from the city, mobile in hand and headphones on head.

Unrelenting blue skies, parched land, weathered faces as if sculpted by time, the ultra-traditional division of male and female roles, mystical beliefs and ceremonial sacrifices to encourage the return of the water… For a young city-dweller, Virginio’s extreme obstinacy and introversion, his out-and-out refusal of modernity and his secret acceptation (over and above denial) of his death are proof of his selfishness and inflexibility. But whilst opposing and attempting to sway his grandfather, Clever also embarks upon an infinitely human journey where deep emotions carry timeless values…

Hailing from the world of photography, Alejandro Loayza Grisi demonstrates a solid understanding of the expressive power of images, which he has entrusted, on this occasion, to the talented Argentine Barbara Alvarez (The Fever [+see also:
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trailer
interview: Maya Da-Rin
film profile
]
, Jesús [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, The Headless Woman [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
). His savoir-faire allows him to work with a subtle economy of perceptions, teasing out modest and soberly moving portraits, and, like the Andean condor of local cosmology (the link between Earth and Sky), they’re the bridge between daily reality and the soul’s aspirations.

Utama is produced by Bolivia’s Alma Films and Uruguay’s La Mayor Cine, in co-production with French sales agent Alpha Violet, who are also steering international sales.

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(Translated from French)

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