Film Review: Bolivia’s ‘Utama’ & Venezuela’s ‘The Box’

in Movies/TV by

November is a huge month for Latin American and Latino cinema in this country

It all starts this week with the theatrical release in New York of still photographer Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s visually stunning feature debut Utama, Bolivia’s entry to next year’s Oscars for Best International Feature, and Lorenzo Vigas’ The Box (La caja), Venezuela’s entry for the same award.

Utama won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance this year and will be rolled theatrically after its New York premiere. La caja will begin streaming on MUBI on November 11.

This Friday also sees the theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s long-awaited return to Mexico, Bardo: falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades (Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths). Originally three hours long, Iñárritu cut about 20 minutes after it screened at Venice and Telluride.

The film opens nationwide on November 18 and starts streaming on Netflix on December 16. Even though I am seeing it in the next couple of days, I suspect this is one of those films I need to marinate in my brain for a while before I write about it.

Para añadir leña el fuego, there is this little film you may have heard opening on November 11 called Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, featuring the Marvel Universe debut of Tenoch Huerta as Namor, lord of an undersea kingdom heavily inspired by Aztec culture.

Some white mexicanos have been moaning and groaning about his casting just because Huerta represents the actual Indigenous face of Mexico. Personally, I am a bit curious as to how Ryan Coogler will handle the animosity between Namor’s realm and the African realm of Wakanda. I do hope that Marvel fans go on to discover Tenoch’s work in films like Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid and Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Güeros

But wait, there is still more!

Guillermo del Toro’s anticipated adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale, Pinocchio, is scheduled for a theatrical release sometime in November before it starts streaming on Netflix on December 9. Pinocchio was partially produced at the Centro Internacional de Animación (International Animation Center) in Guadalajara.

Speaking of Netflix and submissions to the Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film, ARRAY Releasing, the distribution arm of Ava DuVernay’s collective, will release Ivan Herrera’s Bantú Mama, the Dominican Republic’s official selection, on the streaming service on November 17.

The film tells the story of a French woman of African descent who is arrested for drug trafficking after arriving in the Dominican Republic. After escaping the authorities, she is taken in by two orphans and turns into their protegée and surrogate mother.

The following day, November 18, sees the release in New York and Miami—followed by a national theatrical rollout—of Fernando Trueba’s (La Belle Epoque) Colombian-made film Memories of My Father starring Javier Cámara (Talk to Her, Truman) as prominent doctor and human rights activist Héctor Abad Gómez, who devoted his life to public health programs for the poor in Medellín to the consternation of the city’s authorities in the 1970s. 

I would be remiss not to mention the latest iteration of the Addams Family saga, the Tim Burton-produced and directed Wednesday featuring a now teenage version of the character portrayed by Jenna Ortega, co-starring the inimitable Luis Guzmán as dad Gomez, and Venezuelan-American comedian, actor and producer Fred Armisen as Uncle Fester—who seems to be channeling both Christopher Lloyd and the original Fester, Jackie Coogan. Yes, folks, los Addamses are Latinos—deal with it.

The fun starts on Netflix on November 23, Thanksgiving Eve, a.k.a. Black Wednesday, which is fitting enough.

Let’s kick off this very busy month with two reviews…



Opens November 4 at Film Forum in New York, followed by a national rollout that includes a one-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center of Chicago on November 11

It was unavoidable for me to watch Alejandro Loayza Grisis’ devastating feature and not think of the late Peruvian director Oscar Catacora’s one and only feature, Wiñaypacha (2017). Both films center on an elderly Indigenous couple trying to survive on their own in the Andes while holding tight to their traditions and close connection to Mother Earth in the midst of climate change.

In Wiñaypacha, shot entirely in the Aymará language, Wilka y Phaksi yearn for the return of their son who left them for the city years ago. They have to fend for themselves, alone in a hostile climate in a region abandoned by its inhabitants.

The film was Perú’s official submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film four years ago.

The elderly Quechua couple in Utama at least have the nearly deserted town nearby to count on for some level of support. Virginio and Sisi (played by real-life couple and non-professional actors José Calcina and Luisa Quispe) make a living as llama herders in the equally arid Bolivian altiplano. Their corral and their humble home, made of stone and wood, sit in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and cracked soil—it hasn’t rained in over a year. Sisi has to walk miles to get water from the town’s only well and, once it dries up, the rapidly shrinking and muddy river located a couple of miles from it. Not even the sacrifice of a llama to the gods is enough to stop the inevitable march of climate change.

Virginio is wracked by a constant, dry, violent cough that leaves him gasping for air. He won’t tell Sisa about his failing health. Instead, he exerts his patriarchal control by insisting that she is in charge of the water when she asks him for help in carrying the buckets.

From ‘Utama’ directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi

The unexpected arrival of grandson Clever (Santos Choque) further stirs the pot. He wants to take his grandparents back to the city, but Virginio refuses. He is as beholden to the land, to tradition, to speaking his native tongue, as Clever is with his smartphone.

But Clever is not your prototypical acculturated teen. You can feel and see the love, the empathy, he feels for his grandparents, and his willingness to help them both. He wants what he thinks is best for them under the circumstances. And he’s also as stubborn as Virginio.

The story is deceitfully simple but, just like an onion, as you begin to peel, you discover layer after layer after layer. Utama is not only a story about tradition and the impact of climate change on Latin America’s poorest communities. It is also about migration, about a generational and cultural divide, and about patriarchy. It is the love story of a couple who over the years have developed their own intimate language. But most of all, it is a story about death: of a land, of its inhabitants, and of a way of life.

As captured by cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez’s wide-angle lens, this land is awe-inspiring in its vastness, incredibly beautiful in spite of its dryness, and cruel. She captures the heat haze as it distorts Virginio while he takes his llamas to graze. Her panoramic shots capture these creatures’ indifference as Virginio faints, stopping to look at his crumpled body before marching on. Cergio Prudencio’s score, with the participation of the Orquesta Experimental de Instrumentos Nativos, taps into Bolivia’s folkloric music to evoke a sense of foreboding, of things slowly falling apart, of loss.

Utama is, then, a lament for a land that nurtured us for so long.

The Box (La caja)

Opens November 4 at Cinema Village in New York City and begins streaming on MUBI on Friday, November 11

In 2015, Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas became the first Latin American filmmaker to win the Venice Film Festival’s top award, the Golden Lion, for his feature film debut From Afar (Desde allá), which tells the story of a middle-aged man cruising the bus stations of Caracas in search of young men he can pleasure himself with and the one young man from the streets whom he falls in love with.

Now Vigas travels to Mexico for another story about an albeit different relationship between a young man and an older one.

Hatzín (newcomer Hatzín Navarrete) arrives in Chihuahua to receive the remains of his father, discovered in an anonymous mass grave, leaving behind his ailing grandmother to spare her the pain and sorrow. After signing several documents, the authorities hand over a metallic oblong-shaped box bearing his father’s remains and the almost incinerated ID found next to them.

On the bus back, Hatzín sees a man bearing a strong resemblance to the photo on the ID. Stepping off the bus, he confronts the man who identifies himself as Mario Enderle (Hernán Mendoza). But Hatzín won’t leave well enough alone, and after calling his grandmother and lying to her, starts to stalk the man. No matter how many times Mario drives him to the outskirts of town, Hatzín pops up again in front of his house, even after walking dozens of miles.

From ‘La Caja/The Box’ directed by Lorenzo Vigas

Impressed by his persistence, Mario offers Hatzín food and shelter and allows him to tag along as he recruits workers for one of the many maquiladoras in the area. Hatzín proves to be good with numbers, so Mario entrusts him with keeping tabs on the number of workers recruited. His talent proves useful in many ways, especially when Mario’s employer tries to rip him off. 

Mario may or may not be his father, but their relationship is the closest Hatzín has had with a paternal figure since his own father left him and his mother. And because he doesn’t want to lose this connection, Hatzín begins to take part in actions that are at best morally dubious and at worst deadly: luring a truck driver into a trap so that Mario can steal his truck full of sewing machines, burying the bodies of those who dare question the labor practices of the maquila, intimidation, and one brutal act that will most certainly mark Hatzín forever.

With The Box, Vigas delivers one of the darkest coming-of-age stories in the history of cinema.

From ‘La Caja/The Box’ directed by Lorenzo Vigas

Vigas and co-screenwriter Paola Markovitch are not interested in painting their characters in black and white. Mario may be a cold operative, but he is also a man with a dream, even if it’s one that perpetuates the exploitation of others. To hear him speak about opening his own maquila is to hear the voice of many working men and women who work hard every day while nursing dreams of owning their business. He is a family man, and yet, his actions cause so much pain to so many families.

Hatzín’s gaze may be impassive, distant, observant, but that doesn’t stop him from being a willing participant in these acts even as his curiosity drives him to find the truth about this corrupt world he has become a part of. Even when he expresses shock at his own actions, he still carries on, regardless of the emotional and spiritual consequences. 

Vigas stages these actions in such a matter-of-fact, business-like way, that you can’t help but think this is how life is in such places—that these workers are nothing more than numbers and bodies in an anonymous grave for people like Mario. But Mario is also a cog in the wheel, one who provides the prime material for these factories. He may absolutely feel no guilt—in fact, he teaches Hatzín how to lie—and still, in adopting such a straightforward, no-nonsense mode, Vigas shows how good men can be willingly caught in a corrupt system and still comport themselves as respectable citizens. The two faces of this same coin further confuse Hatzín and entrap him. 

Just like in Utama, landscape plays a key role in the film. Shot in 35mm by Pablo Larraín’s go-to cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, the vast, open Mexican vistas engulf and isolate the characters—they are just a tiny spot, seen from up high or afar by the camera. When snow falls at the end of the film, you can’t help but see it as a physical manifestation of the coldness and indifference not only of the land, but of the men who tread on it.


Featured image from ‘Utama’ directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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