Moody, poetic and a cinch to draw moody, poetic people to the arthouse, “Crab Trap” is an impressive debut for tyro helmer Oscar Ruiz Navia, whose demi-mythic tale involves new and old worlds colliding on the coast of Colombia. Navia shows enormous control of his medium, and even greater restraint regarding narrative detail. But spareness of vision and story give the pic an ethereal air and an aura of mystery that will only add to its arty cachet.
Into a village called La Barra wanders a second white man, Daniel (Rodrigo Velez). The first, Paisa (Jaime Andres Castano), has been harassing the black inhabitants of the village with loudspeakers pumping dance music all day, in an effort to drive out the native inhabitants so he can build a resort.
The longtime residents have roots that predate legal niceties, but Paisa has papers. The tension between the legal landowner and those who have generations of occupancy on their side is interrupted by the unsmiling Daniel, who just wants to get a boat so he can get away from La Barra, and whatever it is that’s eating him up.
There are clues to the cause of his angst — allusions to a woman, glimpses of a photograph, a reference to a pair of actors who’ve passed through the village days earlier. Daniel, detached and aloof, responds in small doses to the voluble Lucia (Yisela Alvarez), half child, half con artist; and to Jazmin (Karent Hinestroza), the beauty being pursued by Paisa. Cerebro (Arnobio Salazar Rivas) is the local leader and alleged wise man, but like almost everything in Navia’s film, his purpose and power are called into question.
It sounds cliched, but the landscape really is as much a character in Navia’s film as Daniel, Paisa or Cerebro. It is a land that smiles as little as Daniel, the hostile Pacific rolling nearly into a mute jungle; the strip of beach where the people live is as much at risk from nature as it is from man. This unfamiliar part of Colombia is also beautiful, and unexploited — but, one fears, not for long.
Landscape and dreamscape, like the clashing worldviews of the characters, meet in “Crab Trap,” whose effect is an existential disequilibrium. If Samuel Beckett ever went to the beach, this is what he might have thought about.
Production values are tops.