In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the largest annual mean temperature increases caused by climate will not be distributed evenly around the Earth. As a consequence, these increases were to be concentrated in “high-mountain ecosystems,” particularly in the Andes of South America.
It is in the altiplano of the Bolivian highlands where writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi sets his 2022 Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Grand Jury winner Utama, a chronicle of the socio-environmental pressures pushing an elderly Quechua couple out of their way of life.
Virginio (José Calcina) and his wife, Sisa (Luisa Quispe) rise with the sun every morning to tend to their herd and abode. They are miles from the nearest farming village, now a ghost town as a longstanding drought has pushed people out of the mountains to the cities, all at once their livelihoods rendered untenable.
Despite the threat, Virginio and Sisa remain steadfast, the former particularly framed by a silent and unwavering determination. Often the only sound that fills the space of their days beyond the bleat of llamas is Virginio’s cough, a worsening condition he battles alone in an uphill fight against any intervention in their systematic lifestyle.
His intentions are interrupted when their grandson, Clever (Santos Choque), comes to visit from the city. Clever quickly picks up on their troubles with the drought and Virginio’s unnamed illness, and attempts to persuade them to join him and leave their agrarian livelihood.
Calcina and Quispe, both not actors by trade, bring a wordless integrity to their performances that is accentuated by cinematographer Barbara Alvarez’s long takes of their herding and farming practices. When they aren’t such an integral part to their environment and composition of Alvarez’s shots, they are transformed by the blinding glow of the sun or the gnawing chill of the moonlight, elements of magical realism deployed by Loayza Grisi far too sparsely.
Virginio, mostly unwelcome to his grandson’s visit, sees his proposition as a threat and a continuance of a generational divide that separates the hardworking Indigenous peoples that the country depends on with the lazy, easily satisfied masses that include Clever and his own father.
The divide is accentuated through language, physicality and faith. Virginio often will chastise Clever in Quechua, with which Clever only understands a few words, a weaponized defense of an oral tradition threatened by those who only speak Spanish. Additionally, the farming community comes together for several attempts at ending the drought, including a trek into the mountains for those dwindling glacial deposits and the sacrifice of a herd animal — both journeys Clever struggles to keep up with.
Sisa sees both sides of the issue, including the opportunity to live with her loved ones and to have the secrets of Virginio’s illness come to light. In a rare showing of verbal directness, Virginio likens this decision to leave the highlands to the Quechuan myth of the condor. The sacred bird, representing the one of the stages of life — the heavens — and the connection between that Hanan Pancha (Kay Pacha) and the earthly realm, is believed to lay its wings to rest for the final time and fall into the rocks when it knows its time, and usefulness, has ran out.
Virginio, telling Clever this story, fumbles with a rock in his hand. It is one of many that he collects for Sisa on his herding treks, a journey that he sees no need to stop until the last possible moment. And, like his whole life and livelihood before it, he sees no reason to do this on anything other than his own terms.
Utama remains faithful to the conditions and peoples that populate the Bolivian highlands without defaulting to an interminable discussion of climate change and globalization. It shines through its cast and their ability to home in on these issues within the context of Quechua tradition and the threat to Indigenous livelihood everywhere. Persistent and achingly beautiful, Utama is a masterful feature directorial debut by Loayza Grisi that opens hearts to both his work and that of the emblematic Bolivian Indigenous cinematic heritage.