“Land of Ashes” by Sofia Quiros executes a coming-of-age story in a plain yet efficient manner, but it’s also only intermittently courageous to explore more than that simple story has to offer.
Being born in the right corner of the world defines how much hardship one will go through. In the case of Selva, a teenage girl that lives in the Costa Rican countryside, that start isn’t easy.
Selva (Smashleen Gutiérrez) lives with her worn-away, time-tested grandfather Tata (Humberto Samuels), and a motherly figure Elena (Hortensia Smith), in a shack hidden deep in the heart of a jungle.
The seeming tranquility of their life is only a makeshift tool. Tata’s health is deteriorating, and when Elena suddenly disappears, Selva’s left with a dying man on her shoulders and no perspectives of a change. The girl’s whole world therefore collapses, and without any person to look up to, she’s simply lost.
With the disappearance of Elena, “Land of Ashes” loses its sharpness – the train looked as if about to derail.
Quiros spends a substantial amount of time on depicting Tata’s slow passing, and while she keeps Selva as the lead, her youth is pushed to the background – girl talks at school or experiencing her first fling. The balance’s out for more than a brief moment, and that’s where the story kind-of halts.
Fortunately enough, Sofia Quiros finds a solution.
Right from the beginning, the female director establishes a kind of duality within the story she tells. In the opening scene, Selva buries a dead snake, then talks to a mute woman dressed in black, who appears next to the girl. That woman, as the plot later on reveals, belongs to the spiritual world that intertwines with the plot quite seldom.
That’s where Quiros finds the fuel to make the story’s engine roar again. By letting Selva escape into the world of the dead, she’s also given a voice that slips her the idea – a way out of the tragic situation. This reveals the cultural layer of “Land of Ashes” too. The Costa Rican beliefs become vital to the story, along with the deep connection with the surrounding nature. Quiros gracefully paints these images, with saturated palettes of jungle greens and exotic animals appearing in the bushes.
On a more technical side, mere drama residing in the plot is also overcome by the towering performance of Smashleen Gutiérrez.
The young actress worked with Sofia Quiros a few years back, on a set of a short feature (which gave grounds to “Land of Ashes”). Yet here, in a full-feature film, she is given enough time to spread the wings. Gutiérrez has the ability to be genuinely charming, and charismatic among her peers, but with little effort she puts on a mask of worry and dismay too. It’s a genuine performance that almost nonchalantly catches the spotlight.
The authenticity of “Land of Ashes” plays its part too. The jungle in Quiros’ lenses can be dangerously tempting, but also plain. Her camerawork gently swings from frames inspired by Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”, to all-time classic “The Mission” or more recent “Monos”.
As William Faulkner wrote “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”.
In a way, “Land of Ashes” is about crossing bridges and leaving past behind just to look forward. It’s an exotic piece of cinema, one that introduces another voice that’s been so-far unheard in the world of cinema. Therefore, despite its tiny flaws, “Land of Ashes” offers a peek into a known problem in an unknown world.
Land of Ashes (2019)
Dir. Sofia Quiros
Hate Grade: 4/10
Overall judgment: Argentinian filmmaker Sofia Quiros places a coming-of-age story deep within the heart of the Costa Rican jungle, and thanks to this picturesque setting, as well as a ravishing performance of Smashleen Gutiérrez, “Land of Ashes” finds its exotic if uneven rhythm.