An artist named Damian disappears into the wilderness to do penance for a crime he can’t shake in “Under California: The Limit of Time.” Spanish-language pic, which marks directorial debut of “Like Water for Chocolate” editor Carlos Bolado, is a real find: a heartfelt odyssey into self that will remind some of John Sayles’ recent “Men With Guns” but is, in every way, an improvement on that like-themed pilgrimage. Allegorical trappings won’t go over at the local megaplex, but specialized venues would do well to consider this haunting, pictorially ravishing Mexican import.
Damian Alcazar gives an unusually moving and, in long stretches purely visual performance as the well-known American artist who for-sakes his pregnant wife and heads south to the Baja peninsula to atone for an all-too-vivid hit-and-run accident. Damian says he’s going to San Francisco de la Sierra to kneel at his grandmother’s grave; but en route, his quest broadens and evolves: He leaves sculpture-shrines (out of shells, bleached whale bones, etc.) to his victim and the ravaged land and, after visiting the grave, journeys deeper into the mountains in search of Baja’s mysterious cave paintings (shown here for the first time on film).
Like a modern-day Job, Damian insists on a journey minus creature comforts. His pickup is burned as a sacrificial offering, and he declines the use of pack mules. He walks until he falls exhausted. His soul cleansed, he can now become one with nature and embrace both his spiritual and ancestral heritage, the latter represented by a distant cousin named Arce (strongly played by Jesus Ochoa).
At once complex in its visual conceptualization and political without hitting the viewer over the head, “Under California” owes a passing debt to the symbolic pilgrimages of Bunuel and Antonioni — but only a passing debt.
Bolado is capable of repeatedly blurring the lines between the corporeal and hallucinatory. In this goal he is aided immeasurably by lensers Rafael Ortega and Claudio Rocha, whose palettes consist of shadows, sunbursts and silhouettes. In one sequence Damian and his guide become the murals they seek, reminding the viewer that the most arduous trek is through an internal landscape.