Friday, January 22, 2010

PSIFF10: BELGIAN CINEMA—Altiplano (2009)

Following up her performances in Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa (2005) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009) with her characterization of Saturnina in Altiplano (2009)—directed by the Belgian filmmaking team of Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth (Khadak, 2006)—the beautiful Magaly Solier confirms her position as the cinematic icon of indigenous resistance. It is also the only film I've ever seen to chart the organic (i.e., political) process by which a Black Madonna is born. Hands down, Altiplano was my favorite film from the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival and I'm hoping to have the opportunity to watch it again soon at a Bay Area venue.

Eschewing the "light magical realism" observed by Variety critic
Boyd von Hoeij in Llosa's first two features, Brosens and Woodworth opt instead for a provocative clash of naturalism and unabashed theatrical artifice. The term "magical realism" has, of course, been in steady evolution since its original coinage by art critic Franz Roh in the mid-1920s (who—as Gary McMahon states it in his recent Film International essay on "Magical Realism in New York" (Vol. 7:5, p. 18)—applied the term to visual arts to describe its fixation "on the mundane to give banality unnatural presence." One could argue that—because of its reliance on dramatization and the overtly fantastic—Altiplano's achievement is as a stylized hybrid of the mundane and the unnatural.

I find it intriguing that one of the most Latin American films at PSIFF is actually a Belgian concoction. In fact, when Variety's Jordan Mintzner caught Altiplano in the Critics Week at Cannes, he notedly complained that Altiplano felt "way more Euro-centric than Andean-authentic." This clash between cultural sensibilities, however—much like the friction between its mundane and unnatural elements—is precisely what lends Altiplano its defining flint sparks.

Thematically, Altiplano pursues the consequentiality intrinsic to the parallel narratives of Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, in particular). Two storylines are set up side by side as the film begins with two images of violence against faith. First, war photographer Grace (Jasmin Tabatabai) is forced at gunpoint to capture an image of her Iraqi guide's execution. The photograph earns her an unwanted celebrity—"It is a photograph that should never have been taken," she insists—and she refuses prestigious awards and recedes into depression. Meanwhile, in the Andean village of Turbamba, Saturnina (Magaly Solier) prepares for her upcoming wedding. A statue of the Virgin Mary carried out of the church in ceremonial procession is accidentally dropped and shattered as children excitedly run through the legs of the processioners to play with glittering puddles of spilled mercury, which is being mined at a local quarry. Contamination of the local water supply has tragic effects on the health of the Turbamba villagers, with Saturnina's fiance Ignacio (Edgar Quispe) being one of the first to succumb.

The connective element between these two narratives arrives in Grace's husband Max (Olivier Gourmet), a cataract surgeon assigned to an eye clinic in the high Andes near the village of Turbamba. His effort to communicate with his wife through video diaries proves to be a key element in the intersecting destinies of Grace and Saturnina. Max's death at the hands of the enraged villagers—Fabien Lemercier writes at Cineuropa—"leads Grace to embark on an initiatory and redemptive journey, during which her soul enters into symbiosis with that of Saturnina."

Of course, as Allan Hunter informs in his review for Screen, both narratives are stories ripped from the headlines: "Altiplano bears all the signs of Brosens and Woodworth's background in documentaries. The mercury spill in the Peruvian village of Choropampa in 2000 provides the guiding inspiration for some of the events depicted in their film. Brosens studied the impact of protest suicides whilst living in Peru and Ecuador. The photograph that Grace takes is strongly reminiscent of Eddie Adams' defining shot of the Vietnam conflict capturing a Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong guerrilla at point blank range. Altiplano is a production with an impeccable sense of documentary reality allied to a more meditative style of filmmaking."

Lemercier likewise extols Altiplano's exploration of the subject of the power of the image: "Without an image, there is no story." "A photo has never stopped a war," Grace argues. "I won't die silently or invisibly," Saturnina cries in protest. In Altiplano, Brosens and Woodworth powerfully demonstrate the enduring capacity of image to contain contradictory and contrasting narratives of conflict. Variety's attempt to reduce the film to "latte-friendly arthouse fare" and Bernard Besserglik's dismissive review for The Hollywood Reporter—"Overblown ecology movie punctured by platitude"—pale into insignificance against worldwide critical acclaim (gathered at the film's website). Though, as Lermercier has fairly cautioned, the film doesn't seek to please all viewers—"who may be disconcerted by some of its dramatic choices"—Altiplano is certainly not afraid to take risks.

And what a wealth of imagery is offered in Altiplano (masterfully lensed by Francisco Gózon)! Whether the shifting of palette from black and white to color, or the stunning landscapes of the Peruvian Altiplano, or the amazing visual transition of Saturnina into religious iconicity (reminiscent of Solier's similar transition in Madeinusa), cinematographer Gózon "captures breathtaking images of piercing blue waters, snow-covered mountains and some of the religious rituals that are part of daily life in an area where spiritual values and community have a stronger grasp than the material urges of western cultures" (Allan Hunter, Screen). Altiplano's highly stylized usage of tableau vivant comes menacingly into play when masked moros with ice swords personify impending doom and destruction. Here, again, there is a striking clash between cultures as moros can be understood both in its Grecian mythic expression or in its syncretic reference to indigenous representations of Spanish conquistadors (as in the Mayan Baile de la Conquista ("Dance of the Conquest")).

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