Death is the ultima Thule of “Last Land,” a film best described as sensory in the way it attempts to plunge viewers into the immediacy of loss. However, like many young helmers who believe they have the mature sensitivity to tackle the subject, Pablo Lamar creates beautiful but empty poetry — full of attractive lensing meant to provide meditative space, yet unable to offer a profound statement about passing from life to death. Instead, its meticulously crafted, fixed-camera images fetishize beauty over emotion, in its own way becoming just as manipulative as the sentimentalized dramas that represent its polar opposite. That said, “Last Land” is a Latin American fest film par excellence, and will see plenty of play on the circuit.
Anyone who thought “Paraguayan Hammock” (2006) was too talky need not worry: There’s no dialogue here, though the sense of life slowed to a snail’s pace is the same (perhaps it’s time Euro film funds start thinking about backing more diverse voices from Paraguay?). A flame is the commonplace opening image, lighting a small shack where an elderly man (Ramon del Rio) chews some food. The next shot is of his wife (1950s fashion model-turned-actress Vera Valdez Barreto), the camera angled just below her painfully thin chin so that she looks like a fragile bird. Furthering the avian imagery, the man feeds her the chewed food via his mouth.
Who are these people? Unimportant. Apparently it’s enough to know they’re dirt-poor, making them, presumably, the everyman and everywoman of the impoverished rural class. We see and hear her gasp a long death rattle as he holds his candle between them in imitation of the chiaroscuro paintings of Georges de La Tour. When she expires, the screen fades to a blinding blankness, accompanied by a crescendo of bird and insect sounds that gradually resolve to white noise. This presumption of looking death in the face via beautiful images, so common among fledgling directors, is a romanticizing trope whose own demise is long past due.
The rest of the film evokes the man’s ritualized attempt to come to terms with his loss. He bathes in a river, digs a grave, chops wood. Lamar captures the restorative majesty of the natural world, which will continue long after both wife and husband cease to exist. But is a lengthy, locked-down shot of a lichen-covered rock really saying much about geological intransience? Most likely, Lamar sees the image as a lyrical pause, a restrained moment in this music-less sonata that allows auds to breathe more deeply, though in truth that’s all they’re likely to do throughout the short running time.
D.p. Paolo Giron’s compositions are handsomely framed and have the gravitas of gallery-quality photographs, ultra-sensitive to shadow as well as natural light, such as the way the sun twinkles through tree branches like a star sapphire. Most notable is Lamar’s sound design, richly filling the screen with evocative natural sounds. As an introspective study of man’s place in nature, “Last Land” has its merits, but as a mournful reverie on age and death, the film grasps emptily at transcendence.