Burning sugarcane fields shroud a struggling peasant family in a pall of ash in this austere debut from Colombian director Cesar Acevedo.
Years after abandoning his wife and child, a man returns to find their rural homestead surrounded by sugarcane fields. Fires rage constantly as part of the harvesting process, filling the skies with great plumes of ash. Though the stubborn matriarch refuses to quit her modest property (the “land”), no living thing could possibly thrive amid such a smoldering Gehenna, and indeed, the man’s only reason for returning to this infernal place is the fact that his son has fallen ill. While mirthless in the extreme, Cesar Acevedo’s deliberately paced and distant-feeling debut works its way under audiences’ skin, weaving a haunting allegory through painterly compositions, while distinguishing itself as a worthy candidate for that subset of festivals which specializes in arduous cinema.
If that sounds like a damning description, rest assured that not everyone shares the widely held American belief that the objective of cinema is simply to entertain. While a modicum of humor might have brought some much-needed levity to “Land and Shade’s” relentlessly downbeat aesthetic, Acevedo is well within his rights to keep his story grim. Like “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Good Earth,” his narrative rebels against the romantic tradition, underscoring domestic struggle with the hardship of agricultural subsistence. A stunning scene of burning fields late in the film recalls Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”: Trapped beneath their heavy pall, the characters’ only choice is to escape, however difficult that may be.
At face value, “Land and Shade” offers a straightforward account of a shattered family reunited at a time of crisis, brought together in a setting that suggests one of the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno. The characters themselves don’t even appear to be entirely human, going through the motions in a slow-motion daze, almost like ghosts, or the somnambulistic characters in a Roy Andersson movie. In the press notes, however, Acevedo hints that the older couple was partially inspired by his parents, allowing him to orchestrate a reunion (and fragile reconciliation) that never occurred in real life between an emotionally damaged single mother and the husband who walked out on her all those years ago.
But who could blame someone for trying to escape this hell on earth? Even before the cane plantations crushed in upon them, this meager life must have felt like the bottom rung of the social ladder. Like the enormous century-old tree that stands defiantly in the yard, Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) put in her roots, while Alfonso (Haimer Leal) left, abandoning his son in the process. In the film’s long, unwavering opening shot, we witness Alfonso’s return, walking slowly along a dirt road. As he approaches, a huge truck barrels by, sending up great clouds of dust and forcing Alfonso into the nearby cane fields.
The camera may be static, but it’s a dynamic composition nonetheless, one that vividly illustrates how economic powers take precedence over the little man — a spirit-crushing motif repeated time and again in the film: As Alicia and her daughter-in-law (Marleyda Soto) slave away in the charred cane fields, as Alfonso wipes the ash from the leaves in their garden, and as his son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa) sees his condition deteriorate without the attention of a doctor. The shot repeats again later, the second time featuring Alfonso and his grandson Manuel (Jose Felipe Cardenas), as the monstrous truck spoils an ice-cream cone purchased in town. Parallel scenes depicting the unrest among the fieldworkers feel disconnected from the insular sphere of the coffin-like home.
Though Alicia clings to her land, and the ailing Gerardo in turn refuses to abandon her, it’s clear that Manuel and his mother must quit this place if they hope to have any real chance in life. As the situation worsens, the movie’s tone hardly changes, doing perhaps too little to underscore its own stakes. Once, the giant tree comforted this family in its shade, but now the darkness overhead seems all-consuming. Apart from the two women, the cast is made up entirely of nonprofessionals, and though the child proves especially strong, Acevedo puts his emphasis on rigorous compositions rather than acting, with no music to help read his characters minds, with the unfortunate effect of making his tragic characters seem simplistic.