Award winning filmmakers Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth have woven magic like none other in their most recent feature, Altiplano(2009). But viewers beware… This highly potent masterpiece is not for children, or the faint of heart.
Perhaps the sorcery lies in Altiplano’s form, which simultaneously employs ritual performance, documentary realism, fairytale and horror. Too easily labeled ‘Art House’ by some, the film’s greatest strength is its healthy environmental awareness – highlighting crucial issues affecting us all.
The masterfully crafted opening montage presents the characters and their stories with explosive impact. Slowly, these weave together, leaving us reeling with endless, probing questions that reverberate in our own lives.
The first scene opens inside a church at Turubamba, a small Peruvian village high in the Andean mountains (the Altiplano). What begins as quiet adoration of the Virgin, ends in a theatrical festival, with masked worshipers leading ecstatic parishioners to the streets. The large sculpture of the Virgin is proudly hoisted by two men. One of them, Ignacio, turns out to be a key figure in the film. We also meet Saturnina, his shy and beautiful girlfriend. Saturnina fills her days tending sheep and happily preparing for their upcoming marriage. Celebration abruptly leads to horror when some gleeful children stumble into Ignacio, and the Virgin falls to the ground in pieces.
We’re next diverted to Iraq where war journalist Grace is forced to photograph her partner Omar as he is assassinated.
Back home in Belgium, Grace and her husband, Max, host a party. Max, an ophthalmologist, must soon travel to a Peruvian cataract clinic near Turubamba. Still shaken by her experience in Iraq, Grace announces that she will not accompany Max and will withdraw her photograph from the competition for a Pulitzer Prize. She claims that it is her camera that causes Omar’s assassination, and because of this she will never photograph again.
Devoutness and superstition go hand-in-hand in the tiny village of Turubamba. The filmmakers do not pass judgment, but merely present life as it is. Not surprisingly, when Ignacio suddenly develops nosebleeds and falls down dead after bringing holy water from the glaciers, speculation begins. Then, when most of the previously healthy population present themselves at Max’ clinic with inexplicable blindness, this seems further proof that the Virgin is not pleased. Set against these events lurks the discovery of ‘liquid silver’, mercury, in the Turubamban water, soil and air. Saturnina later construes the contamination as the result of miners disrupting the environment in their quest for gold. Initially, mercury is interpreted quite differently by a villager claiming, ‘It’s beautiful but I don’t trust it.’ His friend responds with, ‘Where there are mines lives the devil.’
Aside from the magnificence of the Altiplano, and the dreaminess of the flowing waters, the beauty of this work lies in the lyrical storytelling, the silence and the realization that lurking beneath every beautiful image is something else, seething to get out.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.