Autodidact Eduardo Villanueva’s sophomore feature, “Penumbra,” is the cinematic equivalent of museum labels that attribute paintings to “Latin American School, early 21st century.” Contributing to the generic designation are: an elderly, impoverished couple in the provinces; mystical nature; spare dialogue; handsome, slow pans; a painterly use of light; and Arvo Part. Even the title brings to mind other films such as “Silent Light” and “Post tenebras lux.” There’s talent here, but Villanueva, like a young artist still influenced by his elders, needs to find his own style or he’ll become a skilled yet unexciting copyist. A modest fest life awaits.
Though “Penumbra” occasionally resembles a documentary, and lead Adelelmo Jimenez’s life is part of the multihyphenate helmer’s inspiration (along with the works of author Juan Rulfo), this is fiction. Jimenez plays a homonymous hunter living with his second wife, Dolores (Carlota Rodriquez), in a depopulated area of western Mexico. The opening sequence is particularly fine, as Patrick Ghiringelli’s Super 16 camera slowly circles around their modest home, seamlessly cutting while turning to show Jimenez waking up and preparing himself and the house for the day.
As the title would suggest, Villanueva shoots the film in the crepuscular hours, capturing the rhythms of that in-between period. While Jimenez goes out hunting, Dolores busies herself in and around their home, plucking a chicken, making soup, doing the laundry. Her time is largely confined to the domestic sphere (the exceptions are church and cemetery), while his is in the surrounding forests, where he tracks deer and collects medicinal plants.
Little things signal their slow decline: She breaks a vase (a portent of death?), he loses his appetite. We learn that her son is dead. Entwined with their lives are religion — the camera lingers over a blurry shot of a painting depicting the Virgin and Child — and the spirits of the forest, which earn Jimenez’s respect in the way that all good hunters honor their prey. Though Dolores is a presence, this is Jimenez’s film, and the sense of an inner life comes largely from his wordless sojourns in the woods.
Viewers immersed in the arthouse scene will draw parallels with “Paraguayan Hammock,” Carlos Reygadas and even Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Though occasionally repetitive, and not without certain longueurs, “Penumbra” displays a refined sense of composition and a burgeoning sensitivity to the play of light and shadow. There’s a beautiful slow pan across lichen-stained trees, the colors and forms melding to give the sensation of mottled granite; it’s a lovely image, yet a sense of organic integration is lacking.
Arvo Part has become the musical equivalent of the iconic Che Guevara photo: overused and facile. Villanueva uses a snippet from the “Salve Regina” at the very end — why not try Josquin des Prez for a change?