As major parts of Scotland find themselves confronted with a deluge of heavy rainfall, it is somewhat surreal sitting in the Edinburgh French Institute to watch a film about a year-long drought in the Bolivian highlands. Part of this year’s Latin American offering at the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival, Utama is a gorgeous piece of visual cinema featuring a pensive exploration of the effects of climate change in an often unseen, remote part of the world.
Meaning ‘our home’ in Quechua, Utama tells the story of Virginio and Siso, an elderly couple living in a secluded area of the Altiplano. Having not seen rain in over a year, the couple and few remaining locals are faced with the question of whether to see out the drought or follow their fellow neighbours and move to the city, abandoning their homes and livelihoods. When Virginio and Siso are visited by their grandson, Clever, his arrival ignites a cultural and generational clash between the two men.
As Virginio and Siso, José Calcina and Luisa Quispe are truly a revelation. Given the tenderness the pair show to one another in each small gesture or few words shared, it’s no surprise to discover that they are a couple in real life. What is surprising, however, is the fact that the pair are not professional actors; rather, they were discovered while the production team were scouting filming locations. Calcina’s glazed stare into the camera, in contrast with Quispe’s frequent averted gaze from her husband and grandson, convey the vulnerability of a threatened community and culture in a way that cannot be superficially created. The film’s calm and gentle pace allows for the audience to ruminate on the couple’s uncertain future, sharing in their anguish as each day the rain doesn’t come, and the community continues to shrink. Some lighthearted relief is found in the clear generational differences between Virginio and Clever (played here by Santos Choque), and their shared stubbornness.
With his first feature film, director Alejandro Loayza Grisi has captured the staggering beauty of the Altiplano with some truly breath-taking cinematography. Wide shots emphasise the stunning yet arid mountainous landscape, with the oppressive heat of the dry plains radiating off the screen. These scenes are beautifully complemented by the score written by Bolivian composer Cergio Prudencio.
Utama could be criticised as being predictable; it is clear early on how the story is going to end. And yet, no other ending would be as fitting as the one that brings Utama to a close. While the climate crisis and threat to indigenous communities and culture serves as the undertow for this film, Utama is ultimately a love story of one couple – for each other, their culture, and the land they live on.
Screened as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival