‘Utama’ Is A Sombre Meditation On Death In The Bolivian Highlands

Conic

The humanity at the core of Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s feature debut, Utama, makes it a moving meditation on death. The film centres on the elderly Quechua couple Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe). Together they live in the remote arid highlands of Bolivia, where a prolonged drought is making life increasingly unsustainable. 

It’s established early on that water has to be rationed. While Virginio is often shown herding llamas, one scene shows the wizened Sisi travelling miles to a water pump that no longer works. This portrayal of water scarcity reminded me of the closing scene in P.S. Vinothraj’s Tiger Award-winning film Pebbles, where women queue to collect water for their families. As the current climate catastrophe continues largely unabated, such sights may become more common in cinema from the Global South.

Despite the inhabitability of their environment, the couple does not move away. Virginio is particularly stubborn, even as his persistent coughing portends doom. When his grandson Clever (Santos Choque) visits (it’s strongly implied that his father is long estranged from the elderly couple), Virginio, a stout patriarch through and through, spurns the offer of going to the hospital. If he dies, he wants to die on his own turf.

This sense of tragic inevitability is suffused through the film not only by the story’s environmental themes but its cultural ones as well. Over the years, Quechua people have gradually been assimilated into Latin American societies, and with that comes a loss of language and culture. When casting for Virginio and Sisi, Loayza Grisi sought people who spoke Quechan well, eventually finding real-life couple Calcina and Quispe, whose natural intimacy is the film’s greatest strength. Unshowy gestures of affection, such as gentle hand-holding, express decades of love. 

The couple’s passing, an eventuality whose presence haunts every frame of the film, comes to represent the threat of an Indigenous culture forever fading after centuries of colonization, with the environmental destruction brought on by capitalism being the final act of such a process. From the privileged position of the imperial core, watching Virginio and Sisi’s story unfold is a sobering experience.

In a way, Utama is a perfect portrait of the present moment where a mounting climate disaster, coupled with a stormy economic system, threatens all but the most privileged. Consequently, the natural beauty of the landscapes Grisi has captured is sublime in the most terrifying sense of that word. Prolonged takes of these stark plateaus and distant mountains cause our minds to be tense as we consider the elderly couple’s impossible position, the meaning of their passing, and ultimately our evanescence.

Utama, released in select UK cinemas on November 25th

by Cathy Brennan

Cathy Brennan (she/her) is a film critic and an editor at Cinema Year Zero.

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