Film Review: Utama
Utama, which has been chosen as Bolivia’s Academy Awards submis-sion, opens with a striking image of a man walking towards a setting sun across a landscape of cracked and scorched earth. The ethereal nature of the setting suggests some fictional alien world in a sci-fi blockbuster, but Utama takes place on our own planet, its beauty a reminder of all we take for granted.
The location is the Altiplano of the Bolivian Highlands. There an elderly couple—Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe)—maintain a modest llama farm, living without the need for modern conveniences like electricity or phones. Rising with the sun, Virginio takes his animals on a day-long trek to the nearest grazing post while Sisa embarks on a similar journey to the closest village to retrieve water from its well.
Two threats to Virginio and Sisa’s livelihood emerge. Virginio is suc-cumbing to a nasty cough, which he conceals from his wife, and the region’s water has dried up after a full year without rainfall. While ignoring the former issue, Virginio attempts to solve the latter by joining the village elders in sacrificing a llama in the hopes of bringing rain.
Virginio finds his allegiance to the old customs and his stubbornness regarding his health questioned by the arrival of the couple’s teenage grandson Clever (Santos Choque). With his hoodie and huge headphones, Clever represents everything that’s alien to Virginio and Sisa.
Director Alejandro Loayza Grisi takes a patient approach to his storytelling, which reflects the slow pace of life enjoyed by his protagonists. If we’re initially struck by the harsh conditions endured by a couple that should be comfortably retired, by the closing credits we’ve almost become envious of the independence Virginio and Sisa have maintained through their lives.
While climate change is never mentioned by any of the film’s characters, its effects haunt the film like an unseen malevolent spirit. Without water, this community is essentially dying. While never directly pointing an accusatory finger, Grisi lays the blame on a ruling class that is quite happy to sacrifice a region of its country in the name of progress.