The impact of climate change on those it hits first, and hardest, is gently yet starkly illustrated in the story of Virginio and his wife Sisa, played by real-life Quechua couple Calcina and Quispe. The pair are non-professional actors whom first-time director Alejandro Loayza Grisi discovered while scouting for locations in the Bolivian highlands, some 12,000 feet above sea level. There, Virginio occupies himself with the lonely job of shepherding llamas across the remote altiplano.
Far from the political upheavals, coups d’états and the US-backed interventionism that have blighted the landlocked South American country for decades, the epically widescreen film opens with a shot of a vast, arid landscape that could be something out of Dune, if not for the occasional shock of hot pink from the llamas’ identifying ear tags. It’s best enjoyed on a screen so big you’ll move your head reading the subtitles.
Here, we meet Virginio and Sisa, a year into a debilitating drought which threatens to rob them not only of their livelihood, but of their very existence. Many of the locals have already left the parched, cracked landscape, where the wells have run dry and the river is little more than a memory, to make a new life in the city.
Virginio, however, is determined to stay, despite the pleas of his grandson Clever (Santos Choque), whose arrival, smartphone in hand, reminds us that this is the present day. ‘If we leave, our land will be left alone in silence,’ someone says as the village elders discuss the merits of staying or leaving. While the couple are getting too old to walk miles for water on a daily basis through an increasingly inhospitable landscape, leaving utama (‘our home’) is unthinkable. ‘The rain is coming,’ Virginio says. His neighbour is less convinced, believing that time itself ‘has gotten tired’.
It’s best enjoyed on a screen so big you’ll move your head reading the subtitles
It’s an astonishingly assured and emotionally engrossing debut. Grisi’s background as an award-winning photographer is evident in the composition of every shot, almost any one of which could hang on the wall of a gallery wall. Yet his narrative focus is always on Virginio and Sisa, whose expressions of intimacy and love are largely non-verbal yet deeply felt. If you only see one film about Bolivian llama farmers this year, make it Utama.
In UK cinemas Nov 25.