'Altiplano': A Mercurial Vision Of Love And Loss

Magaly Solier

Righteous Retribution: Saturnina (Magaly Solier) is a Peruvian villager whose fiance dies after being exposed to toxic mercury, which goes on to sicken other members of her Andes village. Carl De Keyzer/MAGNUM hide caption

itoggle caption Carl De Keyzer/MAGNUM

Altiplano

  • Director: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth
  • Genre: Foreign, Drama
  • Running Time: 109 minutes
Not rated.

With: Magaly Solier, Jasmin Tabatabai, Olivier Gourmet, Behi Djanati Atai

A group of children discover a small puddle of mercury on the ground; moments later they disturb a church procession, sending a life-size plaster statue of the Virgin Mary crashing, shattering, to the ground. The symbolic import of the images that open Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth's Altiplano couldn't be any more clear: The slick, silvery substance will be the downfall of all that these Peruvian villagers hold sacred.

Brosens and Woodward set out to make a dreamy, symbol-laden film filled with loaded images just like that. The results — though sometimes impenetrable on first glance — can be eye-catching. But the filmmakers' backgrounds as documentarians trip them up when they try to infuse a reality-based environmental-activist slant into the proceedings. At such moments, Altiplano frustrates nearly as much as it fascinates.

This is a story that takes place on two continents, intertwining the loves and losses of two women who never meet. One, Saturnina (Magaly Solier), is a devout Catholic living in a remote village in the Peruvian Andes. The other, Grace (Jasmin Tabatabai) is an Iranian expat in Belgium, a war photojournalist dealing with an unimaginably horrific personal tragedy caught in her own lens. The catalyst that drives Saturnina's story — and that eventually connects the dots between these two — is that beautiful, deadly liquid metal: mercury used in bulk by the gold miners seeking fortune in the hills surrounding the village, causing massive illnesses among its residents.

But Brosens and Woodworth never seem quite certain how to incorporate the environmental politics of the mines into their primary story, beyond using the mercury as a device to instigate tragedy. The realism of that story, and of the "gringo" doctors stationed here to treat cataracts in the locals, always seems at odds with the more impressionistic inclinations of the filmmakers — just, perhaps, as the scientific and industrial cultures of the non-natives clash with the religion and superstition of the locals. (Though truthfully, reflecting that conflict via mismatched filmmaking styles never seems like their intention.)

Jasmin Tabatabai, Olivier Gourmet i i

Battle Scars: Grace (Jasmin Tabatabai), a war photographer, is married to Max (Olivier Gourmet) -- a doctor who loses his life in a violent riot that follows a series of illnesses in a secluded Peruvian village. First Run Features hide caption

itoggle caption First Run Features
Jasmin Tabatabai, Olivier Gourmet

Battle Scars: Grace (Jasmin Tabatabai), a war photographer, is married to Max (Olivier Gourmet) -- a doctor who loses his life in a violent riot that follows a series of illnesses in a secluded Peruvian village.

First Run Features

Still, if a film may do penance for its narrative faults with the grace of its visuals, Altiplano does so in dramatic fashion. There are stunning images here, captured by cinematographer Francisco Gozon, that vary among painterly compositions, documentary realism and quietly surreal interludes.

In that last respect in particular, Brosens and Woodworth attempt to channel the bleak and dusty cinematic mysticism of the Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky. They may never reach those levels of psychedelic genius, but they conjure haunting, achingly beautiful visions, from the masked, stationary figures that populate their rocky Andean landscapes — mental reflections from the minds of characters sick in their bodies or their hearts — or their graceful, sweeping, circular camera moves.

The weight of all the symbolic resonance packed into each shot is often too much for the story to bear. And if the dreamy, hypnotic effect of their filmmaking may not be enough to completely distract from that shortcoming, it sure is a gorgeous thing — at least until the rational mind catches up.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.