Short Reviews: Utama (2022), & There Will Be No Leave Today (1958)

Utama [2022]★★★1/2

Everything seems close to extinction in this film: a place, a mode of life, a language (Quechua), and maybe even the film itself, with its slow pace which may now be compared unfavourably with the recent popular trend of fast-paced, genre-bending flicks. Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut film Utama follows an elderly couple, Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe), who live in present-day rural Bolivia. They start to experience hardship in their increasingly depopulated area as water becomes scarce and Virginio’s health deteriorates. When the elderly couple’s grandson Clever (Santos Choque) visits, Virginio and Sisa have to decide whether to move to the city or persist in their desire not to abandon their home and the only way of life they have ever known. Grisi’s film is cinema at its rawest, most beautiful and contemplative, even if many of its plot aspects are woefully thin and overstretched.

The camera unhurriedly unveils the slow-moving drama of inter-generational misunderstandings and hidden conflicts as hoody-clad and mobile phone-armed Clever interacts with his hard-working, farm-oriented grandparents, trying to persuade them to abandon their increasingly “illogical” lifestyle, while uncomfortably watching the tradition of animal sacrifice carried out to appease the gods so that water arrives. There is also a language divide between Clever and his grandparents, who largely speak not Spanish, but Quechua, which is on the UNESCO list of endangered languages.  

Alejandro Loayza Grisi started his career as a photographer, and Utama impresses with striking images and epic vistas courtesy of its director having an eye for beautiful shots that linger in the memory. There are convincing shots of rural desert-like land and one cut-off community struggling to come to terms with their lack of basic resources, and Grisi captures the change facing the community with much intensity and focus, underlying the elderly couple’s pitiful inertia when faced with old age, fears for their livestock and uncertain future.

Utama taps into the Latin American literary and cinematic tradition by showing vast expanses of desolate land, stubborn wait and magical realism (Gabriel García Márquez), and becomes a beautiful tribute to a lost community and a moribund way of life. With its breath-taking cinematography, but also uneven plot and pace, it makes an assured, even if imperfect, contribution to the Bolivian cinema.

There Will Be No Leave Today [1958]★★★★

This is legendary film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky’s 46-minute student film made in collaboration with Alexander Gordon. It was made with support from the Russian State University of Cinematography named after S. Gerasimov and Central Television Studio, shot in town Kursk, and is based on a real story that happened in that town, as was rendered in Arkadii Sahnin’s story.

The plot concerns the discovery of some remaining-after-the-WWII bomb shells, amounting to 30 tons, in the centre of the city. It is highly dangerous to try to eliminate them on the spot (they are hundreds of thousands of people living in the vicinity) or even touch them. The work to demine the dangerous objects is delegated to Captain Galich (Oleg Borisov), and he begins this difficult task with a group of other soldiers as the city starts evacuating.

The distinguishing characteristic of the film is the interest and tension which Tarkovsky and Gordon manage to sustain throughout their film. The impetus is there once the audience is aware just how dangerous the situation concerning the discovered bombs is. All the people in the city are at risk, and the soldiers tasked with demining are viewed as self-sacrificing heroes. The camera captures elegantly the careful handling of the shells by the soldiers and all the human drama (one citizen wants to be involved in the task, too), and there are casualties of this evolving situation even when the shells still lie dormant: just before the city starts evacuating, a person is struck by a bus, and due to the lack of medical personnel, the operation to save their life has to proceed in less-than-perfect, limiting conditions. Tarkovsky’s mastery of creating much intensity and significance with the most unassuming of surroundings is already evident here, in his student film, and this skill will shine in all its brilliance later in his film Stalker (1979). The last 10 minutes of There Will Be No Leave Today are probably the most impressive and memorable, where the directors decide to play with our expectations.  

Being a student film, There Will Be No Leave Today has its rough edges, but also undeniable cinematic vision, already showcasing a few of Tarkovsky’s celebrated trademark components.

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