Songs of the road
By Ian Craig
Los Viajes del Viento (The Wind Journeys), directed by Ciro Guerra (117 minutes)
Marciano Martínez and Yull Núñez in Los Viajes del Viento. Image courtesy the trinidad+tobago film festival
Boy meets man on donkey. Boy follows man on odyssey to return to owner the accordion that’s been the lifelong instrument of his fame. Man refuses to teach boy to play accordion. This disarmingly simple plot forms the basis of Ciro Guerra’s second film, set across vast swathes of northern Colombia so remote that even calling it a “dirt-track movie” would be overstating the case much of the time. The donkey — a mute, heroic presence that deserves equal billing with the two stars — staggers through an astonishing diversity of landscapes, from the sorghum and grasslands of the Colombian Caribbean heartlands, through the forbidding desert and salt flats of the Guajira Peninsula, to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, where the aging troubadour Ignacio (Marciano Martínez) performs a mournful duet with a Kogui mountain-dweller on pipes.
Some Colombian critics have detected a whiff of pintoresquismo — a Discovery Channel aesthetic — in the loving evocation of landscape, a criticism exacerbated by success on the European festival circuit (Europeans are regarded as particularly susceptible to this kind of exoticising), where it won the City of Rome prize at Cannes. You can see what they mean, but it doesn’t matter.
Since the Mexican drama Love’s a Bitch in 2001, the most exportable Latin American films have relied on a gritty urban aesthetic. On these mean streets, slick new production values helped cushion — for the audience at least — the sickening impact of gunshot wounds and kicks in the teeth, literal and figurative, meted out to humans and animals alike. Brazil’s City of God turned the trick again in 2002, opening with its virtuoso rooster chase, and by the end amassing a body count made inevitable by the exacting “logic” of the favelas. Colombia, though never rivalling Mexico or Brazil in cinematic output and rarely in quality, weighed in with the Medellín-set gangster thriller Rosario Tijeras in 2005, which did brisk box office but was regarded as gratuitous by some.
Eruptions of violence in The Wind Journeys, set in 1968 before the guerrillas had seized much of the countryside, are scarce and restrained. When Ignacio is summoned to play during a cutlass battle on a footbridge, we see the combatants’ shadows lunge and parry, then their reflections in the swamp waters, and finally the coup de grâce intimated only by a spurt of blood across the bridge floor. There are no firearms anywhere, and the only drugs in evidence are the coca leaves chewed thoughtfully by the mountain-dwellers. But this is no rural idyll: teenager Fermín (Yull Núñez) leaves town with Ignacio, you sense, because his life there promises little but drudgery. As for Ignacio, his desert-baked visage and saturnine gaze tell you he’s as much a burden to himself as he is to the poor donkey, having built nothing in his life that might last beyond his own fading legend, save a scattered dynasty of illegitimate offspring he doesn’t know, sired with women who don’t want to know him any longer.
While the violence may be mostly the grinding, circumstantial type, there’s plenty of engaging conflict of other kinds. Ignacio is a gifted curmudgeon, snubbing his charge so thoroughly that when the old man glimpses a photo of the boy’s girlfriend and remarks “You left her behind to come with me? You must be really dumb,” you can’t help thinking he has a point. The younger man’s persistence thus becomes one of the film’s unravelling enigmas: what exactly does he see in Ignacio and why is he so hell-bent on sticking by him? Ignacio himself, of course, is the other enigma: what lies in store for him at journey’s end? Other more episodic battles are joined in riveting musical duels featuring the vallenato rhythms of the region, later made famous internationally by Carlos Vives. As with the wind-scarred landscapes, the director mostly lets the music speak for itself, shooting with minimal cuts and movement, and it speaks volumes.
The film’s graceful cadences build unerringly to a largely silent climax, fitting since the dialogue is sparse throughout (much of it in regional languages other than Spanish). This silent treatment can be a risky ploy for an ending, even in a work as generally elegiac in tone as this one, the risk being that it comes off seeming anticlimactic or, worse, pretentious. The reason neither happens here lies both in Guerra’s assured direction and in the quality of the central performances (by Martínez and multi-talented debutant Núñez), which had me sold on both characters by the finale. In less skilful hands, the threat of cliché might have lurked in both the eager-apprentice–reluctant-master dynamic and the rites-of-passage motif, but the arc of both characters remains unpredictable and the ultimate impact of each on the other is conveyed in terms that are all the more affecting for being unsentimental.
This review is part of a special section on recent Caribbean film, supported by the trinidad+tobago film festival 2010
Ian Craig is senior lecturer in Spanish at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. Born and educated in England, he lived in Spain before moving to Barbados, where he teaches Latin American film. In 2007 he co-ordinated a documentary workshop at the International School of Film and Television in Cuba, and he now co-curates the Africa World Documentary Film Festival at Cave Hill.