Review by Sean Boelman
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at Sundance, Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama is the type of film that will stick with viewers despite its quiet nature. Gorgeously shot and perhaps even more beautifully written, this is a movie that will catch viewers off guard with how great it is.
The movie follows an elderly couple hanging on by a thread in their home in the Bolivian highlands during a drought, as their grandson comes to visit, perhaps in an attempt to get them to come to the city with him. It’s a very simple story, but there is an undeniable power in the way that it explores its themes.
What is likely going to prevent this movie from connecting with most audiences is its extremely patient pacing. It’s one of those films that follows the characters as they go about their routine, with subtle changes causing their anxiety and transferring onto the viewer. And the catharsis doesn’t come when or how you would expect.
The most interesting thing about the movie is the subtle way in which it explores its themes. With long stretches of quietude with no dialogue, there’s not a lot of room for exposition. There are a few conversations in which they talk about how that is their home and they don’t want to leave it, but other than that, it’s a mostly interior movie about the clash between maintaining tradition and embracing the modern.
Given the narrative structure of the movie, there isn’t very much in the way of traditional characterization. Yet even though we don’t get acquainted with these characters in the expected way, we still feel an intense level of sympathy for them. It’s amazing that we are able to be drawn into this story despite knowing so little about them.
The two actors who play the main couple in the film, José Calcina and Luisa Quispe, both do a great job in their roles. However, it is Calcina whose performance is going to really capture viewers’ attention and hold it. The way he is able to use something as simple as his breath to be affecting is pretty brilliant.
But without a doubt, the biggest draw of the movie is the gorgeous visuals. The cinematography by Barbara Alvarez is absolutely breathtaking, with some shots of the Bolivian highlands that are just stunning. But it’s not just the scenery that is great — the way in which Grisi and Alvarez are able to capture the emotion in the frame is wonderful.
Utama is a brilliant movie, but not in a way that is initially obvious. Its gorgeous visuals are sure to be eye-catching, but what will stick with viewers is its quiet, meditative approach to its story and themes.
Utama screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which ran virtually from January 20-30.