The long-term effects of dictatorship on a Bolivian family are explored with delicacy, but also with a fastidiousness bordering on preciousness, in helmer Martin Boulocq’s “Los viejos.” More interested in powerful atmospherics than in its characters, pic is slow to the point of stasis, elliptical to the point of incomprehensibility; its silences shed little light on politics but reveal much about the unhappy state of mind of Bolivia’s second-generation victims of oppression. Repping a rare if oblique take on its country’s troubled history, the film merits attention from fests with an interest in radical Latin American fare.
Shocking, early black-and-white footage of an execution in the desert in the 1970s, when Bolivia was under military rule, provides some context, although auds unaware of the nation’s recent history will struggle to understand what’s going on until the situation is explained much later on. Among the victims of this execution, it is suggested, are the parents of Tono (Roberto Guilhon, from Boulocq’s very different 2005 debut, “The Most Beautiful of My Very Best Years”), who has been dreaming about their deaths.
Tono returns to the home where he was largely raised by his uncle Mario (Julio Iglesias), now unable to speak and wheelchair-bound, and aunt Lucia (Charo Penarrieta). Also there is Ana (Andrea Camponovo), Tono’s cousin and childhood love, who now has a son (Fabrizzio Camponovo) who may be Tono’s.
Boulocq relies on visual metaphor to portray a family in crisis still in the grip of past horrors. Images of a free-seeming Ana riding her scooter contrast with her unhappy, inhibited life at home, while a minute-long take of a bridge is presumably intended to show, like the pic’s beautifully rendered lensing of the shift from fall to winter, that the characters are in transition.
Practically the whole film unfolds in these lengthy takes, to the extent that scene-changes can come as a positive relief. For slow cinema, “Los viejos” is crisply detailed eye candy with a point to make. But when things are this unhurried, auds unfamiliar with the background need material to ponder, and the film is too thrifty with its explanations, most of which have to be picked up by inference. The first bout of dialogue arrives 15 minutes in, and after that, speech is intermittent at best.
Perfs are fine as far as they go, but the characters are abstract ciphers and struggle to communicate much apart from a general sense of aimless depression. Playing out amid the stunning fall scenery of the Tarija region in southern Bolivia, the pic achieves its most powerful, affecting moments when it pulls back to reveal shots of mist rolling slowly down the mountains, as a child sings haunting local coplas (popular songs). Sound recording heightens the noise of nature, turning it into a kind of musical score.
The Spanish title translates as “The Old People.”