Wednesday, May 4, 2011

THE COLORS OF THE MOUNTAIN: Carlos César Arbeláez's haunting Colombian film

Has futility ever looked so gorgeous? It's hard to image a more beautiful movie than this one, taking place in the highlands of Colombia, where the colors are bright and true, but the life endured makes that spot between rock and hard place look practically alluring. The award-winning film THE COLORS OF THE MOUNTAIN is the first full-length narrative feature from Carlos César Arbeláez (shown below), a Colombian filmmaker who earlier made a number of television documentaries and a couple of shorts. His command of movie-making is, not surprisingly, quite assured, and he draws very good performances from his mostly fledgling cast of children (his adult actors have more professional resumes).

Arbeláez's cinematogapher is Oscar Jimenez, who did a very unusual little romantic comedy/travel movie called The Art of Travel a few years back. This one is even more beautiful, and part of its enormous push-pull impact is due to the irony of the breathtaking vistas pitted against the despicable political conditions forced upon the locals. Within a few scenes, we're aware of something severely amiss. Though we see no actual fighting, there appears to be near-constant combat between paramilitary troops and the guerrillas. Both groups insist on the loyalty of the indigenous population -- which makes for an impossible situation. The people who live here must commit to one side only, and so will be eventually killed by the other. Fun, huh?

Yet there is some genuine fun, even occasional delight to be found in the lives of the local children whose parents have kept them as far away from danger and concern as possible  As the movie proceeds, this protection collapses, but until then, these young best-friends have some charming times and adventures -- all of which are overlaid and underlaid with trauma. (Note the scene in which one boy shows another his collection of bullets, and a guessing-game ensures.)

Soccer is the kids' main concern, though they seem to do well enough at school. Their teacher, however, is new, quite dedicated and as yet untutored in how bad the sitation is. She'll learn. Meanwhile, the kids' precious soccer ball goes missing in a field that's been land-mined. (How we and they learn of this provides one of the film's biggest surprises -- and one of its only "special effects.") Along the way, we discover how life in this small mountain community works, and how it impacts on the larger city nearby where trade is negotiated and livings are made.

The three children we come to know best are soccer enthusiast Manuel (played by Hernán Mauricio Ocampo, above and below, left, and further above kicking that ball), his older, taller friend Julián (played by Nolberto Sánchez (above, center) and third-wheel Poca Luz, an albino boy with thick glasses (brought to delightful life by Genaro Aristizábal, above, right). Each has his cross to bear, none of which are at all easy. But the kids keep the movie a bit light-hearted, at least.

Señor Arbeláez treads a difficult line between realism and something akin to a "family film." He makes us aware of the danger, and the inordinately fraught situation for the adults, but shows very little direct violence or bloodshed. We see in one late scene the results of this on a local man, and we also hear gun shots in the distance. Adult viewers will put two and two together; children will need some explaining. All in all, the film works -- and better than you might expect. We never learn anything specific about the political situation or the stance of either the military or guerrillas, but so far as the locals are concerned -- and it is they for whom we care -- this does not matter. As the graffitti-atop-grafitti on the schoolhouse wall indicates, both groups want victory for themselves and death for their enemy, while the teacher and her kids want life and peace. Their contribution to that wall, below, proves beautiful and memorable (you'll have to see the fiim to view their gorgeous mural) -- but it certainly will not last.

The Colors of the Mountain, in Spanish with English subtitles and a running time of 88 minutes, opens in New York City at the Cinema Village on Friday, May 6, with other playdates and cities possible over the months to come. Click here, then scroll down to see a complete listing.

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