‘Utama’ Sundance Review – The Hollywood Reporter

With Sundance moving online yet again this year, there are some films that wind up losing out by not getting to premiere on the big screen. Utama, the beautifully realized feature debut by Bolivian director Alejando Loayza Grisi, is one of them.

Shot in artfully composed and vibrantly colored widescreen by DP Barbara Alvarez (The Headless Woman), it resembles a cross between a minimalist Sergio Leone western and a series of photos by Sebastião Salgado — an aesthetic that unfortunately loses some of its allure when viewed on a laptop. And yet the story at the heart of the film, which follows an older couple’s struggle to stay alive in the drought-ridden Bolivian highlands, is more than just a coffee-table-book view of indigenous culture; it’s a powerful and cautionary tale of survival in a dying world.


The Bottom Line

A visually arresting and cautionary tale of survival.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Cast: José Calcina, Luisa Quispe, Santos Choque
Director, screenwriter: Alejandro Loayza Grisi

1 hour and 27 minutes

With its bare-bones storyline, scant dialogue and long tracking shots of the cracked-earth Altiplano, Utama, which means “our home” in Quechua, is the sort of slow-cinema-type film that was still able to find favor in art houses during the pre-COVID era. Nowadays it will likely wind up on a specialty streaming site like Mubi, although a theatrical release is still possible in Europe (the film was co-produced in France) and a few select territories.

Working with a real couple of Aymaran descent that he met while location scouting, Loayza Grisi cast them as Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe), a pair of aged llama herders who have lived on Bolivia’s arid plains for their entire lives. Virginio and Sisa are not ready to leave, despite the growing difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of finding an adequate water source for both themselves and their livestock.

The term climate change is never used in the movie, but it’s clear this is why so many people have abandoned a region that until fairly recently was able to secure water from the ice-capped surrounding mountains or the steady rains that arrived each season. The only viable sources that still exist for Virginio and Sisa are the well in a deserted town that, again, looks like it belongs in a Leone western, or else a tiny stream that’s about to dry up.

And yet the couple forges on, unable to let go of their land and culture, both of which seem to be fading away. The arrival of their grandson, Clever (Santos Choque), who was raised in La Paz and is never seen without his wireless headphones, brings a shot of modernity into their world, but also a new conflict: Clever is begging them to abandon their ranch and join his family in the city — an idea which seems to tempt Sisa. But Virginio, whose alarming cough is getting worse by the hour, refuses to change his ways, even if it could spell his own doom.

Another film would have explored the elder couple’s life in La Paz after the move and how they would be forced to change their ways in the big city, just like in Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow or Ozu’s Tokyo Story. But Loayza Grisi remains stubbornly attached to the land the same way that Virginio and Sisa do, setting his small-scale drama against a grandiose barren backdrop, in a part of the planet that few movies have ever set foot in (recent exceptions include Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s Altiplano and the otherwise forgettable Quantum of Solace).

When Virginio’s health situation turns dire and the search for water grows desperate, he decides to gather the remaining members of his Aymaran community together to perform a sacrificial ritual that will hopefully save them all. The ceremony takes place at the top of a ragged mountain, and it’s one of the visual highlights of the movie, adding a mythical quality to the otherwise naturalistic scenario.

But the act is also useless against the inevitable collapse of the region, and with it the disappearance of an entire people. In that sense, Utama is very much a pessimistic film, never shying away from the realities faced by those who still inhabit the highlands of Bolivia. And yet it’s also convincingly, and sometimes movingly, optimistic — less about the possibility of the situation really changing, at least anytime soon, than about the capacity human beings have to build stronger bonds, and to find dignity, as death slowly sets in.

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