An intriguing glimpse into the lives of those who dwell off Colombia’s Caribbean coast comes wrapped in a sentimental mother-son love story in the artlessly affecting “Between Sea and Land.” Fronted by Manolo Cruz’s powerfully immobile performance as a young man with a neurological disorder, Carlos Del Castillo’s directing debut carries the viewer along with its stirring emotional directness and a rich, unusual sense of place — qualities that just about prevail over the film’s less-than-polished assembly and a climax that, for all its tearjerking potency, concludes matters on an abrupt and rather too easy note. Still, it’s no surprise that the film came away with the audience award from Sundance’s World Cinema dramatic competition; further festival berths are assured, as are offshore arthouse slots.
In addition to playing the lead role, Cruz is credited with the screenplay and the original idea for the film, which was inspired by a makeshift village near the Colombian city of Santa Maria, where those who are too poor to afford land-based houses dwell in small, open-air shacks perched on stilts over a swamp. The most fascinating aspect of “Between Sea and Land” is the unique way of life it depicts: the rowboats that “neighbors” use to make their way from one hut to another; the sense of being cut off from civilization, but also lacking any privacy; and the continual heat and humidity, captured here with an almost tactile intensity by Roberspierre Rodriguez’s sensual, saturated HD lensing.
It’s in one of these huts (built specifically for the film) that 28-year-old Alberto (Cruz) lives with his mother, Rosa (Vicky Hernandez), who has attended to his every need with fierce devotion since he was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy as a young boy, as seen in a brief, years-earlier prologue. Barely able to move or speak, Alberto now spends his days confined to his bed, hooked up to a clunky breathing machine. Del Castillo keeps the viewer close to his protagonist, physically and mentally; some of Rodriguez’s compositions, which tend toward shallow focus and limited vantage, seem designed to convey a sense of Alberto’s limited experience of the world.
Much of the film is spent observing his daily rituals with his mother as she feeds, bathes and talks to him; there’s a palpable intimacy in their one-way interactions, heightened by their close physical contact in tight quarters, and while Rosa’s love for her son is obvious, there’s a faintly oppressive edge to it as well. Alberto does have his own ways of connecting, from the small mirror he uses to glimpse his surroundings, to the sketches and drawings he’s made, many of which decorate his walls. And then there is Giselle (Viviana Serna), the beautiful young woman who’s been his friend since childhood, and toward whom he feels an obvious and powerful attraction that can never be satisfied; that Alberto’s sickly body is capable of experiencing healthy desire, if not consummation, is one of the film’s more bittersweet acknowledgments.
Rosa, for her part, disapproves of Giselle’s habit of dropping by unannounced (not the easiest thing to manage in a rowboat, but this is one resourceful community), though it soon develops that the older woman has her reasons, and they go beyond the simple matter of a mother’s jealousy. Here and elsewhere, “Between Sea and Land” betrays a quiet optimism toward human nature, a willingness to see everyone’s essential desire to do good — as is made clear when Rosa tries to buy a new machine for Alberto with fish she’s netted from the swamp, or when Giselle pursues her own efforts to improve his medical treatment.
Cruz’s performance is in line with that subtle-yet-showy tradition of disabled characters played by able-bodied actors, the most celebrated of which include Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” and Javier Bardem in “The Sea Inside.” In terms of dramatic weight loss (44 pounds), facial contortions and a powerful sense of bodily restraint, the handsome young Colombian star shows a similar intensity of commitment, and he achieves a deeply felt rapport with Hernandez, who never loses sight of the sincerity and generosity that underlie Rosa’s overprotectiveness.
Both lead actors shared a well-earned acting prize at Sundance, and the bond between them achieves an undeniably stirring apotheosis in the film’s final moments. Yet the scene, as conceived and played, ultimately feels less like a natural outgrowth of the characters’ long history and more like a melodramatic gesture — one that short-circuits the complexities of Alberto’s experience, as a disabled man, in favor of the most wrenching possible outcome. The bluntness of that approach is often echoed by the occasional clumsiness of the filmmaking, including a score that surges loudly at inappropriate moments, drowning out the quieter inner music that would have drawn us more deeply into these characters’ lives.