Sundance 2022: UTAMA

This Bolivian drama, which had its world premiere at Sundance, is a striking meditation on the effects of climate change in an indigenous community.

Shot in a village set between two deserts in the Bolivian highlands, Utama follows the daily routine of elderly couple Virginio and Sisa (José Calcina and Luisa Quispe). Virginio cares for the llamas and takes them to graze while Sisa walks to get water. This is what the duo have done for decades, but things are changing. Virginio has developed a nasty cough he thinks he can hide from his wife, and the village pump is out of water. Then grandson Clever (Santos Choque) comes to visit with news.

Director Alejandro Loayza Grisi wrote Utama, influenced by trips he’d made around the country with family; he even had his preferred location in mind after visiting the village while filming for another environmental film. The crew built Sisa and Virginio’s house and spent winter (the dry season) making this quiet film, using mostly natural light. The landscape in Utama is immense and rugged, but Sisa and Virginio have a long history with the land and feel a deep connection to it. When Clever suggests they move into town, they refuse.

There’s a strong sense of machismo, verging on toxic masculinity, to Virginio’s character. When Sisa asks him to get water while out with the llamas, he tells her it’s her job, like it’s women’s work he doesn’t want to do. He speaks in Quechua around his grandson, fully aware that Clever doesn’t know enough of the language to interpret what he’s saying. The communication issues go deeper than this, as Virginio is stubbornly reluctant to even listen to Clever and learn his grandson’s reason for visiting. There are likely many reasons for the older character’s hesitation to receive medical attention and admit he feels poorly, but it fits under that machismo as well.

Despite this aspect of his character, there’s an obvious tenderness between Sisa and Virginio; knowing that Calcina and Quispe (previously non-actors) are married in real life explains some of that. The two of them emote quite naturally onscreen. Choque, as Clever, shows vulnerability and deep care in his role.

Along with the gorgeous cinematography and shot composition, the sound design is a highlight to Utama. From the first rough breaths we hear from Virginio, to the clopping of the llamas across the land, to the noise of flags rustling in the wind, the audio is clear, concise and perfectly blended. Even the scoring by Cergio Prudencio, with the instrumentation largely made up of percussion and pan flutes, sounds like a natural accompaniment as Virginio takes his llamas out.

Offering a glimpse into this drought affecting a small indigenous village, Utama is subtle yet direct with messaging. This way of life is dying out, and a people whose identity is so tied to the land will have a difficult time transitioning to life in a city. Even with such heavy themes, the Bolivian film leaves the viewer with a feeling of hope.

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