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Utama Movie Review: Beautiful Bolivian Character Portrait

We’re in the way to Utama Movie Review. Well, let’s go forward. Utama is a film that beautifully and movingly conveys love and tradition in a time of climate change through its gorgeous cinematography and performances that are naturalistic.

An old Quechua couple has been reliving the same day for many years in the same manner in the Bolivian highlands. As a result of an unusually prolonged drought, Virginio and Sisa are faced with a difficult choice: they can either put up a fight or allow themselves to be overpowered by their surroundings and the passage of time.

Utama Movie Review: Beautiful Bolivian Character Portrait

This intimate portrayal of an Indigenous couple on the Altiplano, whose survival is endangered by drought, marks the cinematic debut of photographer Alejandro Loayza Grisi, who has made a remarkable but unobtrusive shift to filmmaking. Image source: IMDb

Utama (2022)

An old Quechua couple has a quiet and peaceful existence in the stunningly gorgeous highlands of Bolivia, where they herd llamas. As all they know is put in jeopardy by an unusually extended drought, they are forced to make a choice: they may either remain in their house and continue living their traditional way of life, or they can leave it and start a new life in the city.

The film was the recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was Bolivia’s official entry for the 95th Academy Awards.

Utama: Movie Details
Genre Drama
Original Language Spanish
Additional Language English (Subtitles)
Director Alejandro Loayza Grisi
Producer Santiago Loayza Grisi,
Federico Moreira
Screenwriter Alejandro Loayza Grisi
Cast José Calcina (Virginio),
Luisa Quispe (Sisa),
Candelaria Quispe (Elena),
Santos Choque (Clever),
Félix Ticona (Estanis),
René Calcina (Mototarista),
Placide Ali (Eugenia),
Rene Perez (Callawaya)
Release Date (Theaters) Nov 4, 2022
Release Date (Streaming) Jan 3, 2023
Runtime 1h 27m
Distributor Kino Lorber
Box Office (Gross USA) $51.7K
Where to Watch Amazon Prime
Apple TV

Utama: Storyline

An elderly Quechua couple has been enjoying a peaceful existence in the dry mountains of Bolivia for a number of years. While he tends to their tiny herd of llamas in the pasture, she takes care of the house and joins the other ladies in the community in making the long trek to collect precious water.

Virginio and Sisa are forced to make a difficult decision when their way of life, as well as everything they know, is put in jeopardy by an unusually prolonged drought. They must choose whether to stay put and try to continue living their traditional way of life, or whether to concede defeat and move in with family members who live in the city.

Their predicament is made worse by the visit that their grandson Clever, who brings with him some news, pays to see them. The three of them are forced to confront, each in their own way, the repercussions of a shifting environment, the significance of maintaining traditions, and the question of what life’s purpose actually is.

This debut feature film by photographer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Loayza Grisi is so stunning to look at that it earned the Grand Jury Award (World Cinema Dramatic) at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was shot by award-winning cinematographer Barbara Alvarez (Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman).

Utama Movie Review: Utama's beautiful photography and naturalistic acting tenderly convey love and tradition in the face of climatic change.

Utama’s beautiful photography and naturalistic acting tenderly convey love and tradition in the face of climatic change. Image source: Variety

Utama Movie Review

No one immediately thinks of Bolivian shepherds who graze their livestock on the Altiplano, over 12,000 feet above sea level, as being among the people who will be most negatively affected by global warming.

But the people who live in these isolated highlands are in peril as well, as director Alejandro Loayza Grisi shows in his sublime, quietly elegiac feature debut, “Utama,” which follows an elderly couple who refuse to move to the nearby city of La Paz despite the melting of mountain glaciers, less reliable rains, and the slow dehydration of their herd of llamas.

Long-married Virginio and Sisa live in a modest mud house without modern conveniences like electricity or running water, as portrayed by real-life couple José Calcina and Luisa Quispe (real, nonprofessional actors whom Loayza Grisi had to convince to participate).

She is responsible for getting water for them

Sisa’s task of fetching water has always been difficult, but recently it has become much more so because, as Virginio reminds her severely, he is in charge of the animals and she is responsible for getting water for them.

The nearest town usually supplies everything she needs, but the well has dried up and the river is so narrow now that it would take too long to cross it. It might disappear completely in the near future.

There aren’t many people who would want to live like Virginio and Sisa do, but that’s all they’ve ever known. The Quechua-speaking protagonists of this film plan to spend the rest of their lives in the house that gives the movie its name, despite Clever’s (Santos Choque) best efforts to persuade them to migrate to the city.

Unlike Loayza Grisi, who is in awe by the film’s settings, he is a typical millennial: glued to his phone and ignorant to the world around him.

The film appears completely unique

The director was a still photographer before he became a filmmaker, and he and cinematographer Barbara Alvarez (“The Headless Woman”) developed a unique visual style for the film. The film appears completely unique from the first magnificent picture, which shows Virginio traveling alone across a dark barren plain toward the flaming sunlight beyond the mountains.

The lack of exposure to South American cinema means that the region’s breathtaking landscapes have a greater impact on viewers than any star or plot twist. Several people pay good money for calendars depicting fictitious scenes similar to the one this happy couple sees every day. Will it hold up?

When the rains fail to materialize, Virginio and a few others undertake a ceremony known as “sowing water on the mountain,” in which they offer a sacrifice to the god responsible for the weather.

While the characters are outside, “Utama” mostly employs striking high definition long shots, with the horizon usually at the middle of the frame, faded blue skies above, cracked soil below, and the humans reduced to mere tiny shadows. When they go inside, the camera follows them into their bedroom, where they may get closer to one other.

Characters in “Utama” are analyzed in great detail

The characters in “Utama” are studied closely as they enjoy the quiet intimacy that comes with a long marriage. One look at Sisa reaching for Virginio’s hand at the dinner table is all it takes to know that these two are made for each other.

They don’t talk to one other much since they don’t feel the need to. Virginio hasn’t been feeling well as of late. He has a persistent cough that he doesn’t want his wife to know about. He constantly pastures the llamas.

Contrasting with the dry landscapes, the bright pink tassels fastened on their ears add a splash of brightness. When Sisa is sitting in the backyard, Virginio shuffles over and places his head in her lap. What could he possibly be telling her? It turns out that the two of them are keeping something from each other.

Clever may seem oblivious in certain ways, but he always seems to figure out rather quickly when anything is wrong. He goes and gets a doctor to check out his grandfather, and he won’t let them go until they’re back in the city with him. Yet, I fail to see the point. There is a communication gap between these two generations.

Time has gotten exhausted

“Time has gotten tired” a village buddy tells Virginio in Quechua. Even though Virginio is exhausted, he refuses to give in. The majority of the homes in town have been abandoned, but he has no intention of leaving unless it is to follow the local tradition and travel to “the lake” to die.

Is that the intended target of Virginio’s first shot? In telling Clever about the condor’s suicide, he says, “when he believes he is not needed anymore.” These magnificent birds are a reoccurring motif throughout the film, standing guard over the ever-evolving landscape like deities (while climate change remains the unspoken culprit).

Like the Indigenous people that call the Altiplano home, the Andean condor is considered “near threatened” by conservationists. When will it be safe for the residents of “Utama” to return home?

Utama Movie Review: In conclusion

“Utama” is a spiritual cousin to Peru’s 2018 Oscar nominee “Wiñaypacha” (Eternity), about an elderly couple in the Andes waiting for their son to return. Loayza Grisi’s husband and wife, like them, live a traditional lifestyle despite the difficulty of obtaining basic requirements. Virginio wonders, what would they do in the city?

The director’s introduction of their adult grandson Clever (Santos Choque) sparks the stubborn man’s fight for autonomy. While “Wiñaypacha” is so realistic that it may be non-fiction, “Utama” is enhanced by magical realism and Bárbara Alvarez’s exquisite cinematography.

For all its unearthly beauty, “Utama” might use a few more dramatic beats to enhance its hyper-sensorial experience, especially in addressing Indigenous displacement across the Americas and beyond.