Thursday, August 19, 2010

The all-conquering beauty of ALTIPLANO, an odd concoction of Brosens & Woodworth

Utterly compelling in its encompassing beauty and design, if not its fractured storytelling, ALTIPLANO will strike you, I suspect, as a memorable movie despite some faults that go hand-in-hand with the film's conception and execution.  Beginning with a strange but fascinating religious ceremony in the mountains of Peru  -- it looks half Catholic/half pagan and must be some native adaptation of Christianity -- in which an idol is accidentally smashed, the movie moves immediately to the middle east and to a terrorist/hostage/
photo-op situation and then to a family gathering and grieving amidst some lush greenery and gorgeous European architecture.

Our filmmakers are Peter Brosens (shown at extreme right) and Jessica Woodworth (near right), a duo who, back in 2006, gave us the Mongolian classic Khadak, comparisons to which are apt. While their camera and the people they observe generally move at a measured pace (even in the scene of middle-eastern terror), we are still quickly thrust into three very different landscapes and situations that we soon perceive to be somehow linked.

This slow pacing is both hypnotic and unsettling, while the photog-
raphy here is beautiful and compelling, due to its exquisite compo-
sition and its use of color and light (at times reminiscent of the "old masters") -- as befits a film in which  "images" (religious and otherwise) are all-important.  These include not just the brilliant view of the ceremony that begins the movie (shown just below),

or the forced photograph taken in the middle east, which causes its photographer to put away her camera for good, but also the video letters home from a lonely husband to his wife (below) and the framed photographs (two photos above) of the dead Peruvian native population, martyred to the mercury that is at the heart of the film.

About one-half-hour into the movie we finally see this beautiful and terrible killer -- the mercury spilled by the mining company that excavates the nearby mountains -- that will somehow unite our little group in death. Connected by this lovely, deadly substance unlike any other (the first shot we see of it is stunning) is an Andean Indian family: mother, son, daughter (Magaly Solier, shown on poster at top and two photos below, star of The Milk of Sorrow) and the daughter's fiancé; the war photographer (Jasmin Tabatabai, above and below, left) grieving over the very ill-use of her trigger finger; and her husband (Olivier Gourmet, below, right, the Belgian go-to guy for just about any role), who here becomes an eye doctor working in a nearby area of the Andes to that in which our Indian family resides.

As it goes along, the film and its images become increasingly symbolic -- and rightfully so.  Reality, as most of us know it, has been left far behind.  But as the images --- such as the clothes of a dead man burning on a rock (shown at bottom) -- are often as strange as they are riveting, the viewer eventually lets go of conventional habits of mind and eye.  And as for theatrical death scenes, Altipano offers one that would do Shakespeare proud.  And yet, as it turns out, this death is absolutely meant to be theatrical.

Even so, I do wish that the filmmakers had parsed their plot a bit more carefully.  A pivotal scene rests upon the native population, so angry at the constant deaths of their loved ones, that they blame the guiltless eye doctors, wreaking unnecessary havoc and death (below).  The very next time we see these natives, they seem to have a complete understanding of the entire situation, from the mercury that is killing them to the responsibility of the mining company.  "Indians and mines: It's a very old problem," a policeman that our photographer meets on a bus explains to her. Wow: that was fast and convenient!

"Without an image, there is no story," one character tells us.  Altiplano is a film blessed with a plethora of wonderful images, many of which will probably remain soldered on your brain.  In the press information for the film, the movie-makers explain that they made it with a Peruvian audience in mind, as Khadak was made first for the Mongolian audience.  This is understandable and admirable, too.  It worked better with Khadak, however, because so much of that film was mysterious and foreign culturally, that we could more easily sit back and let it wash over us.  

Altiplano takes in the environment and its despoiling by industry and includes incidents we've read or heard about and so seems particularly timely, immediate and understandable in some ways. This has the effect of making it less mysterious, but more proble-
matic, no matter how beautiful and symbolic its images may be.

The film opens via First Run Features this Friday August 20, at New York City's Village East Cinemas. For further scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here.

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