Venturing into the once-inaccessible region of Venezuela’s southern Andean frontier, vet documaker and cinephile Atahualpa Lichy and his crew lovingly capture the cultural traditions and working lives of the region’s people in “The Mystery of the Lagoons.” While the title suggests intrigue and strangeness, the film is a serious-minded and entertaining piece of anthropological cinema that will appeal to art-film auds and armchair travelers alike, making it highly desirable for general and specialty fests as well as high-end cablers.
Lichy’s storytelling strategy could have been problematic: He chooses, as the subtitle “Andean Fragments” indicates, to craft short pieces about various aspects of the people and events in a range of communities in the Andean highlands. Although this might have resulted in a choppy pace and a sense of short shrift, it turns out to be a fine formal approach to the material. With concision and graceful transitions (thanks to editors Edwin Esmeral and Diana Lichy), the film emerges a cinematic mural of a place few auds have seen.
The cascade of observations is as varied as the landscape: A radio station is a town’s only connection to the outside world; a “biblio-mule” service brings books to kids in a remote town; the Procession of San Isidro features cattle amusingly and symbolically adorned with flowers, vegetables and wheat; a horseman guides his steed to rhythmically dance; a wheat harvest is turned, with the help of horses grinding the grain under their hooves, into flour; a parade of lads adorned in identical masks creates a comic yet eerie mood; 103-year-old Jose Maria Ramirez (the only person identified in the pic) and his 88-year-old wife stay quite active; an old woman stores her coffin under her bed.
Music suffuses the film, which includes scenes of guitarists performing in lovely outdoor settings; a musical family showing off its original fretted instruments and song stylings while performing on a high promontory; a barber singing lustily while cutting hair; and the intensely loud and musical Fiesta of San Benito honoring a sainted colleague of St. Francis, highlighted by dozens of brightly costumed men firing blunderbusses into the air.
Those titular lagoons appear near the end, as Lichy’s team venture to a region that even geography mavens probably had no idea existed anywhere in South America. These special eco-zones are rich with folklore featuring serpents and creatures of the deep; Nessy of Loch Ness, it seems, isn’t alone.
Lensing team of Jose Manuel Romero and Gerard Uzcategui, shooting in crisp video, delve into the scenes and sights with real gusto. A soundtrack filled with Rafael Salazar’s score and songs is alternately romantic, corny and sweet.