Bolivian women sitting by the riverbed in Utama (2022)

Utama (2022) Review – Sundance Film Festival

Utama (2022) – a patient meditation more than a full-fledged drama – marks a captivating debut for photographer-turned-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi.

Festival-goers will surely notice why Utama (2022) seems like a younger cousin of Birds of Passage (2018) by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. The endless highlands of Bolivia, scorched by the unbearable heat, with crystal-clear skies and no trees on the horizon, seem to be drawn from the same universe as Guerra and Gallego’s. In these stark plains, we meet Don Virginio and Sisa, an elderly couple who lives in a hut that pretty much defines “the middle of nowhere” term. The nearest village is almost abandoned due to the severe drought, yet Virginio remains undeterred by the conditions. The lack of water is inimical to the existence of the local community, yet Virginio stands by his belief that rain will eventually pour – it’s just a matter of time.

Grisi’s film points out how the lives of the indigenous people of Bolivia – lives that remained untempered for decades and stuck in the old ways – are changing due to the global circumstances. Utama (2022) sums up the butterfly effect emerging through the climate crisis. If the most industrialized parts of the world keep destroying the planet, stories such as this one presented in Utama (2022) will only grow in mass.

There is another layer to the film’s subject of tradition. The couple is visited by their grandson, a boy named Clever. In order to paint the vivid picture of the age gap, Clever arrives at their alpaca farm with eyes in his phone (by the way, if there is a cellphone signal in this place, then any horror that uses this no-signal-here trope gets to be slammed). Clever tries to pierce through the heavy-duty armor of his granddad. He’s testing the grounds before laying out the truth about his visit.

Grisi makes a solid point of how subjective the concepts of home and belonging are. Clever justifies his reasoning in a very right-mind manner, yet tradition has its rights too. The boy criticizes Don Virginio’s selfishness, the mask he wears to disguise the true reasons why he refuses to accept the boy’s proposition. Yet Alejandro Loayza Grisi lets both sides of the fence present their perspective. For the elderly couple, this estranged piece of the world, nestled between hills and rusty dessert, accounts for their only home.

While Utama (2022) looks at a very micro-perspective of just three people and a problem that binds them together, there is a universal truth about its ecological message. Grisi’s passionate about the subject of his intimate story and has a keen eye for frames that speak volumes about the state of things. In one mesmerizing shot, reminiscent of Kevin Carter’s infamous photography of a vulture looming over a dying boy, Utama (2022) says more than its entire dialogue. While the film’s illuminating cinematography touches soul, the narrative is thin, and whenever Grisi attempts to talk about bigger-scale problems, Utama (2022) seems to lose track.

For those who appreciate films that look great, this is a gem. The cinematography by Barbara Alvarez looks elegant and painterly, with crisp color palettes and picture-perfect sunsets that turn the dying highland into art suspended in time. Utama (2022) works best when it lets these images speak for themselves – the drought frightens more when portrayed as a desiccated lake and one man meditating over its sad demise.

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