“Landfall” didn’t need the coronavirus to make audiences outside of Puerto Rico to be sympathetic to its plight, but after so many brushed it off after the country was left in ruins, Cecilia Aldarondo’s bracing new film has become extraordinarily prescient, exposing what societal issues were already percolating before disaster struck and imagining what it might look like after the complete collapse of civilization. Set two years removed from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the “Memories of a Penitent Heart” filmmaker canvases the islands where her family is from to observe the free-for-all that’s commenced in the wake of the storm, where the streets are filled with protestors rallying to oust Governor Ricardo Rosselló, whose cabinet members were caught handing out government contracts to businesses they had ties to, and the luxury hotels are sparsely populated except for Americans eager to take advantage of Puerto Rico’s friendly tax code as a result of still being recognized by the U.S. as a territory rather than a state.
Still, “Landfall” starts outside on a beach where Aldarondo cleverly establishes a paradise where there’s plenty of unsavory things happening beneath the surface. Images that are postcard-ready are tied to two women talking about the 350,000 people that showed up to protest the Rosselló administration, watching videos of themselves at the rally on their phone and that juxtaposition of the nation’s beauty and ugly political situation extends to the film’s intricate structure, cutting between scenes of those scrapping together a life in the wake of Maria and American opportunists who see the chance to buy low and profit amidst the chaos, from real estate agents for luxury homes to blockchain entrepreneurs. (One almost has to wonder whether Aldarondo debated including the scene-stealing Quinn, a cryptocurrency hawk with a rattail for a goatee who seems too good to be true.)
Puerto Rico’s tortured past eventually makes its way into the mix with the inclusion of tourism videos from the 1950s, a brilliantly image-conscious recall of the last time political unrest gave way to complete societal upheaval and despite some lamenting the short memory of Puerto Ricans as a necessity to move forward in a country that has experienced so much pain, the many articulate citizens who Aldarondo interviews are well-aware how history could repeat itself, with a farmer in Orocovis recounting how the masses were driven towards the city after having a greater measure of control over their fate in countryside, encouraging them to become reliant on urban amenities, and a New Yorker who longs to return to his native Puerto Rico explaining how the nation’s debt – already at $72 billion before Maria hit – was used by politicians as cover to cut essential social services, further crippling the lower classes.
Such strong words are accompanied by equally potent imagery from cinematographer Pablo Alvarez-Mesa, who can capture the many dichotomies of Puerto Rico in individual frames, from its cultural richness and extreme poverty to the wounds that will never go away and the flimsy bandages that are applied by those in power so that people are quick to move on. “Landfall” gives pause, not only in laying out in staggering fashion how savvy the vultures that prey upon Puerto Rico are in looking to take advantage of what fragile infrastructure is left, but in its arrestingly beautiful evocation of the hope that remains to change the country for the better, even if it comes from those with fewer resources to do so. In Aldarondo’s extraordinary film, a crisis can bring out the worst in people, but also the best.