Film Review by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York
‘Utama’ (Directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, produced by Alma Films/La Mayor Cine, Bolivia, 2022), Winner of the Grand Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival, in general release in UK cinemas on 25th November 2022
Utama (“our home” in the Quechua language), written and directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, is an arresting depiction of the personal crisis of imminent death confronted by an older man. Its storyline reads like a Biblical tale of multiple allegories, symbolic stories beautifully told and psychologically astute.
The film opens as an old Quechua farming couple living in the hills near La Paz, Bolivia, awakens to begin their day. They appear to be living in an earlier century, and in rural poverty: Their home is rough and basic, their breakfast meagre. Both husband and wife have anxious, joyless facial expressions. The couple, Virginio [José Calcina] and Sisa [Luisa Quispe], have been enduring the longest drought in memory. Most of their farming neighbors have by now given up and moved on, having lost all hope that the rains would return in time to restore their livelihoods and spare their lives. But Virginio is adamant about not leaving his farm and abandoning his herd of llamas; he refuses to accept defeat by quitting his parched lands for the city. “The rain is coming,” he insists. But there has been no sign of it. Their crops have failed, and their llamas are barely hanging on, but Virginio cannot bring himself to leave what might be the only home he has ever known.
Suddenly Viginio’s twenty-something grandson, Clever [Santos Choque], arrives unannounced from the big city. Clever, dressed in a track suit and consulting his phone every few minutes, speaks in Spanish rather than the traditional Quechua of his grandparents. He is clearly from a different time and place. Clever has come of his own accord, with the self-appointed mission of bringing his failing abuela and abuelo to the safety of the city. But there is bad blood between Virginio and his son, Clever’s father, and the older man’s contempt for his son extends to his grandson as well.
Meanwhile, signs of the drought are everywhere, but this crisis does not stand alone as the film’s central theme: Virginio himself has become seriously ill. To this viewer, the unceasing drought functions more as a continuous background metaphor, a haunting symbolic reminder of Virginio’s approaching death, as suggested by repeated images of the dry, lifeless soil sifting through his work-calloused hands.
So, in most of the story, Virginio clings to both life and home, unready to relinquish his hold on either one, fiercely resisting their respective endgames, death and drought. Yet he also remains opposed, not only to medical intervention but to revealing the truth of his fragile hold on life to Sisa. It would be an oversimplification to characterize Virginio’s attitude about his mortality as “denial.” On the contrary, Virginio knows with certainty that he is dying, presumably from lung cancer. He reveals his present condition indirectly to his grandson using another symbolic allusion to the end of life, by describing how condors, creatures redolent of death, themselves die. He tells Clever that when a dying condor reaches a threshold of fatigue, barely able to fly, he then accepts the inevitable, climbs to the highest peak, folds back his wings, and leaps from the mountainside to his death.
But unlike the condor, Virginio is not yet prepared for such an ideal, unconflicted end to life. He struggles internally and continues to fight against dying just as he steels himself to carry on in his own home, working his blighted land and upholding the vanishing culture of rural Quechua life. His motives in not informing his wife of his hopeless prognosis are mixed: He is worried about how Sisa will get on without him, and/or he is unwilling to die alone, without the wife who has been his loving partner for many years. He insists that Sisa must go with him “to the lake,” a transparent euphemism for suicide. It takes his grandson, the modern, very clever “Clever,” to point out that Sisa can and should have the agency to decide such matters for herself.
Over the course of Virginio’s discussions with Clever, the film highlights the psychological complexity that humans must individually put right in the face of imminent death. One needs water to survive and thrive; but one needs spirit, courage and emotional support at the end of the day. For Virginio, the prospect of dying in a distant hospital, far from everything and everyone he has known and loved, would be a double death, an anathema. The visiting doctor brought by Clever to examine Virginio knows that he is defeated and gives way without a serious effort.
Finally accepting the likelihood that the rains will not come again in his lifetime, Virginio nevertheless finds a way to savor his last days. To arrive at this point, he must first find a path to relinquishing his anger and resolving his fractured relationship with his grandson, by implication also mending the quarrel with his absent alienated son. Having done so, he now enjoys an almost celebratory meal with his wife and grandson. The stony, impassive stares of husband and wife are now replaced with relaxed smiles.
It is therefore suggested that, having at last completed the requisite psychological preparation, Virginio will die at peace with himself. But in broader, less individually specific terms, how is dying well—that fundamental but elusive conundrum of human life—actually to be achieved? When Virginio is explaining to Clever how condors die, Clever asks if the condor in that scenario is “scared.” Yes, replies Virginio, he is scared, but he also knows that a new cycle of life is about to begin, meaning that there can be solace in the understanding that life will carry on abundantly and perpetually after one man’s death.
Without revealing the film’s dramatic conclusion, the viewer perceives, well before the ending, that lost llamas will return home, the rains will come again in due time, and a new cycle of life will eventually take hold. It’s a feeling that echoes the simplicity and wisdom of a remembered childhood fable.
As a final note, the extraordinary cinematography in in Utama warrants the audience’s special attention. There are many breathtaking pauses for painterly shots of the bleak, barren hills, contrasted with brilliantly blue skies and the colorful ribbons that distinguish Virginio’s herd of llamas. The music is also beautiful, providing a background that would be interesting enough to stand alone, but here is closely aligned with the changing moods of an evolving story, ranging from disturbingly ominous at the beginning to spiritually resonant by the conclusion. Watching this film is a sobering and yet rapturous experience.