Saturday, 11 September 2010

Review : Alamar

Alamar is the stunning fiction feature debut from Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio. Aside from the Italian-set prologue and epilogue, the main body of the film takes place on the Banco Chinchorro, the largest coral reef off the coast of Mexico and one of the few self-contained ecosystems of its kind left in the world.

Featuring some of the most luminous photography I've seen in the cinema for quite some time, it brings to mind the kind employed by fellow Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas (particularly the exquisite opening shot of his 2007 picture Silent Light) whose production company is responsible for nurturing González-Rubio's multi-faceted talents (he acted as both cinematographer and editor as well as writing and directing).

Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Alamar offers a picture of three generations of the same family living on a precarious fishing hut built on stilts directly above the reef. Jorge (Jorge Machado) has brought his young son here for a summer with his own father, away from his newly adopted life in Rome where his mother is now living. There's no other story to speak of, with any drama coming from the strength of the perfectly composed images themselves and the beautifully observed relationships between the three actors, all playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves.

Although narratively slight, like Jorge's young son Natan we're instead offered a poetic education in life on what, from the surface, appears an idyllic retreat from the bustle of Natan's new life in Rome. The thriving Edenic ecosystem is portrayed in all it's beauty and danger, with man here a significant part of nature's cycle of life and death. One moment you're marvelling at the life on the reef, stunningly captured in some breathtaking underwater sequences, the next you're exposed to the hardships and violence that comes from making a living from it. Lobsters are impaled with home-made spears, and barracudas are clubbed to death in extraordinarily vibrant and kinetic fishing scenes. Death is never far from the surface of this film, sometimes explicitly commented upon (as when Natan and Jorge play with a dead crab on the beach), but always presented as just another stage in the ecosystem's life cycle.

As Jorge teaches his son how to scale a fish, the latin names of the flora and fauna, how to snorkle and avoid the reef's inherent dangers, we know that the idyll cannot last. Natan will have to return to Rome, and his lesson in loss and impermanence is echoed in a awe-inspiring central section in which they attempt to tame a visiting egret, which the boy names Blanquita, only for it to fly away days later. Nothing lasts forever, and the reef itself is presented as a fragile living organism which we can only question the sustainability of in the face of man's relationship to it. The closing titles tell us that there's an ongoing campaign to make Banco Chinchorro a World Heritage Site, perhaps the only way of ensuring it's protection.

Ultimately though, Alamar is about a father's love for his son and whilst certainly a degree of patience is required to immerse yourself in this type of 'slow cinema', it's a consistently rewarding experience with a brittle, fragile edge to it's beauty that marks the emergence of a real talent in South American cinema.

Alamar - 2009 - Mexico - 73 mins - Dir : Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio

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