Jun 27, 2012

On DVD: Alamar

This is simply a beautiful movie. I'm not a huge fan of meditative cinematic tone poems, which I sometimes find boring and pretentious, with the filmmakers' heavy stamp of sensibility and opinion intruding upon the pristine circumstances that they set out to portray; but this beautifully thought out and realized film by Pablo González-Rubio is another story.
A hybrid between storytelling and documentary, Alamar (which is a poetic way of saying "to the sea"), follows the summer that Natan, a young boy who lives in Rome with his Italian mother, comes to spend time in Banco Chinchorro, the remote island where his Mexican dad lives with his own father, a crusty, lively old fisherman in Mexico. These people live literally in the sea, in a little house on stilts. They fish for lobster, red snapper and barracuda. They catch the lobster by diving into the sea with a snorkel and a harpoon, looking for them in their caves and spearing one by one. The fish they catch by throwing fishing line with bait. No sophisticated equipment; just goggles, a snorkel, fins, a spear, bait, line, and a pretty solid motor boat. The young father teaches Natan what his life is about. He is loving but firm, and Natan is a quick study.
González-Rubio, who wrote, directed, edited, produced and magnificently shot the film, has an artist's eye for composition, camera movement, and color. The images are absolutely stunning. He captures the cramped intimacy of the boat, of the little shack, as well as the majesty of the sea, the hard work of the fishermen. The underwater photography by Alexis Zabé and David Torres Castillo is also spectacular, yet inobtrusive: everything is in proportion to the simplicity of the story. The filmmaker achieves a wonderful trick: he makes it look like he's staying out of the story while crafting it with great skill, delicacy and insight. He knows better than to divert attention from the quiet power of the story and of the bond between three generations of men.
Alamar has the feel of a documentary, although González-Rubio wrote the story. There is no philosophizing, as in Le Quattro Volte, a similar film about life in a remote Italian town. There is no artistic self-indulgence either, no excruciatingly long takes that attempt to pummel the viewer into appreciating nature, and make you feel guilty for not having the superhuman attention span that such pretension requires. Every minute of Alamar is moving and mesmerizing, because it is so visually magnificent and because it concentrates on an intimate, but almost mythical story about a boy who comes from a world away to spend the summer with his dad, who lives with very little. From the comforts of Europe with all the trappings of what we call civilization, plush toys, TV, running showers, to a wooden shack with a hammock and a radio, in a place where no one ever wears shoes.
Natan turns out to be surprisingly adept at adapting. Not every urban little boy would take to the choppy seas with such esprit de corps, let alone being away from his mom and the life he knows, to an existence where there is nothing to do but fish, eat what you caught and look at the sea. Oh, but there is so much more to marvel at. An egret that comes to the house for breakfast, hermit crabs, fish gasping for breath: life on Earth.
We see Natan queasy from seasickness and perhaps jet lag on his first fishing expedition. The first time his dad teaches him to snorkel, it's not fun. But soon he becomes a child of nature. It seems that he has inherited some of his dad's ways. By the time he has to leave, he sheds quiet tears as his father comforts him with words that promise constant nearness.
Gonzalez Rubio lets things happen. He doesn't create contrast or conflict where the image and the action speak for themselves. If this was in less sensitive hands, it could easily be turned into a story of a fish out of water who learns to be in the water, a boy hero who learns from his hero father, but thankfully, the filmmaker doesn't impose the artifice of dramatic narrative on them; it is there, naturally in the sadness of the geographical distance between them. There are no false notes in Alamar. I regret missing this movie when it was shown in theaters. But it is gorgeous, even on a small screen.

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