Sundance 2022 Review: “Utama” Conjures a Cinematic Oasis Out in the Desert

It’s been nearly a year without rain in the Bolivian highlands when we first meet Virginio (Jose Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe) in “Utama,” a couple that have spent the better part of a century in the area, tending to their llamas and living a generally quiet life. Only recently have they had to considered moving – at least one of them has when the stubborn Virginio won’t hear of it, but the lack of water has forced the few that shared the desert with them up to the north and Luisa is getting too old to make the trek to carry buckets back home from the closest river. It’s an uncomplicated dilemma, but one that’s filled with more than enough tension to sustain Alejandro Loayza Grisi absorbing debut, set in a place where few films have gone yet digging into a family drama that surely most know.

Although Virginio can’t be bothered to acknowledge how dire a situation it’s become, a running theme when his health seems to be failing him as well, word of the worsening conditions has reached his grandson Clever (Santos Choque), who decides to make the trip in spite of the tortured relationship he has with Virginio, carried over from his father before him. Sisa is happy to see him, but Virginio is quick to call him a spoiled brat and though the couple might not be able to eat if not for the supplies Clever brings with him from the city, he is hardly welcomed in. If Calcina and Quispe seem immediately formidable and quite entrenched as the central pair, it’s likely due to the fact they really have been married for 48 years – and apparently resisted Grisi’s initial attempts to make them movie stars, but leaving the life they’ve known seems as unthinkable as the harsh whims of the weather, unlike they’ve ever seen before.

“Utama” leads with the beauty of the land with residents as content to age with wear and tear that they’ve seen has shaped the valley so beautifully, but as Sisi subtly and effectively contends, believing the future will be anything like the past is a fool’s errand and while those at the ends of the earth may have a front seat to climate change, they are quite likely the last to know what’s coming. Clever is hardly an alarmist, but he takes on the near-impossible task of convincing his loved ones to get out of harm’s way, crazily not made any easier with the suffering they’ve already endured firsthand, and regardless of the circumstances, his gentle coaxing while giving space to them to make up their own minds will be eerily familiar to many, particularly in these pandemic times.

The gorgeous cinematography conjures appropriately mixed emotions when it makes “Utama” easy to get lost in, but difficult to fathom what will be soon lost and Grisi’s insistence on authenticity, attending town meetings and casting mostly nonprofessionals really gives a sense of place that conveys why it would be so hard to leave. Still, whether or not Virginio or Sisa do, “Utama” stays in the mind.

“Utama” will screen virtually at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd for a 24-hour window beginning at 7 am MT.