Three indigenous sisters in the barren Altiplano of northern Chile confront their increasing isolation in Sebastian Sepulveda’s starkly handsome debut, “The Quispe Girls.” Based on a true story from 1974, when the claws of Gen. Pinochet’s dictatorship were being felt even in the remotest parts of the country, the pic plays on the intimacy of the sisters in contrast to the monumentality of the landscape, crushing them in its immense solitude. Given the current flourishing of Chilean cinema, and the reps of producers Pablo and Juan de Dios Larrain, “Quispe” should find welcoming slots in fests worldwide.
Life on the enormous mountain plateau of northern Chile has always been harsh, though native communities had settlements and made a living as shepherds. As part of Pinochet’s bid for absolute rule, he ordered police to confiscate flocks, forcing the population to move to more controllable areas. This is the background (the politics are slowly and subtly introduced, so prior knowledge isn’t necessary), as the Quispe sisters, indigenous Coya women ages 35 and over, notice that neighboring families are increasingly abandoning their homes.
Their eldest sister recently died, leaving them without her guiding intelligence and practicality. Now Justa (Digna Quispe, a niece of the real women) is the oldest, yet she lacks her late sister’s vital decision-making skills and has lately become diffident. Lucia (Catalina Saavedra, “The Maid”) is the middle sister, angry and argumentative, painfully aware she’s beyond an age for pretty things or marriage. The youngest sibling, Luciana (Francisca Gavilan), yearns to be appreciated as a woman, and to find a husband.
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The sisters’ increasing isolation is becoming apparent, with stories swirling about of families selling their livestock and moving. Lucia won’t entertain such an idea, since the last time she went to town she felt laughed at by people scornfully looking at her as a bumpkin. Soon she learns that Justa knows rumors of police killing the animals and relocating the population, and the three sisters are faced with the end of their lifestyle, with no one to turn to for guidance.
Sepulveda mines rich yet understated emotion out of the contrast between the sisters’ small living quarters and the vast colorless expanses around them that offer familiar succor as well as frightening emptiness. The harsh landscape nurtures them, yet there’s no one left to buy their cheese, and they become increasingly concerned that police will come and kill their goats and sheep. Unsurprisingly, their enforced togetherness creates additional tension, with differences in personalities becoming increasingly apparent. The yearning for sexual companionship is a particularly interesting angle, though the helmer pushes things perhaps a bit too much toward the end.
Saavedra is too one-note, her unmitigated dejection requiring some modulation, but Gavilan is fine and non-pro Quispe makes a deep impression, her grounded body and immovable face as much a part of the physical and emotional topography as the rocks and twigs. Intimate shots within the sisters’ “ruca,” or hut, are edited alongside scenes of the Altiplano, highlighting the sisters’ dependence yet also their sense of being crushed by mounting loneliness. Excellent sound design, capturing the constant wind, furthers the feeling of limitless desolation.