Unfortunate innocents are forced to behold horrors in "The Colors of the Mountain."

Unfortunate innocents, living in an area where Colombia’s FARC rebels and the military fight for power, are forced to behold horrors in “The Colors of the Mountain.” Good-humored may look deceptively lightweight, but this no-frills, sincere if sometimes cliched drama nicely sidesteps sentimentality and haranguing social criticism, and its wobbly dramatics are compensated for by a wonderful central perf from kid thesp Hernan Ocampo. Writer-helmer Cesar Arbelaez took the new director award at San Sebastian, and further fest showings beckon.

Soccer-mad 9-year-old Manuel (Ocampo) and his buddies Julian (Nolberto Sanchez) and Poca Luz (Genaro Aristizabal), a weak-sighted albino, live in a small farming community high in the Colombian mountains of Antioquia. Manuel’s proud, stubborn father, Ernesto (Hernan Mendez), is under threat from the local rebels for having failed to show up to their meetings. The rebels control the area, and remaining neutral is not an option.

Shortly after a jaw-dropping scene in which a pig is blown up by a landmine, Manuel loses his new soccer ball in the minefield. He spends the rest of the film using the hapless Poca Luz to try and recover it in scenes both mildly comic and suspenseful. Ernesto’s increasing tension about their safety is shown to be justified when the FARC kidnaps Julian’s father (Antonio Galeano).

Simply unlucky to live where he does, Manuel understands none of the reasons behind the violence around him: His increasingly desperate “I want my ball back!” suggests he thinks that when he finally gets it back, everything will be fine, but of course it won’t.

Action unfolds mostly through Manuel’s eyes, and Ocampo proves terrific in a demanding role that the film intelligently avoids idealizing. Mendez convincingly shows Ernesto’s decline from amiable farmer to wife-beater, but struggles to retain aud sympathy given his inclination to put his principles before his family’s safety.

Thankfully, the understated, well-observed screenplay remains trained firmly on the experiences of the confused, helpless characters. There are no weepy speeches or didactic table-thumps here, nor any heroes. Villains on both sides remain faceless. The downside is a lack of conflict that engenders a certain dramatic monotony.

Stunning natural scenery conjures a sense of space and freedom that contrasts powerfully with the increasingly narrow options of its inhabitants. On the tech side, helmer might consider reining in his habit of fading scenes to black.

The Colors of the Mountain

Colombia-Panama

Production

An El Bus, Congo Films, Jaguar Film production. (International sales: UMedia, Paris.) Produced by Juan Pablo Tamayo, Julian Giraldo. Directed, written by Cesar Arbelaez.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Oscar Jimenez; editor, Felipe Aljure, Andres Duran; music, Camilo Montilla; art director, Gonzalo Martínez; sound (Dolby Digital), Yesid Vasquez. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi New Directors), Sept. 25, 2010. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Hernan Ocampo, Genaro Aristizabal, Nolberto Sanchez, Hernan Mendez, Carmen Torres, Natalia Cuellar, Antonio Galeano.

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