×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘Land of Ashes’

With:
Smachleen Gutiérrez, Humberto Samuels, Hortensia Smith, Keha Brown (Spanish dialogue)

1 hour 20 minutes

The English title suggests a desiccated, gray wasteland, but Sofía Quirós Ubeda’s “Land of Ashes” — surely one of the most entrancing first features of the year — teems with verdant, ungovernable life, made somehow more magically intense by the constant, hovering proximity of death. An expansion of the Argentine-Costa Rican filmmaker’s short film “Selva,” which played in Cannes Critics’ Week in 2016, the 80-minute film is an arrestingly beautiful coming-of-age story that unfolds like the dreamy incantation of a spell, or a bedside prayer murmured over clasped hands.

Selva (incandescent young star Smachleen Gutierrez) is 13 and lives in a tiny Costa Rican coastal town bounded on one side by a pulsatingly dense forest and on the other by the pale blue-gray breakers of the Caribbean. At home, she shares the duties of caring for her frail, elderly grandfather (a heartbreaking Humberto Samuels) with Elena (Hortensia Smith), a loving older woman who practically lives with them but whose substance abuse issues make her unreliable at times. Elena and Selva’s prickly relationship is brilliantly drawn in quick, evocative lines: Selva spits on Elena’s food before serving her, but their exchange of dirty-word insults at the dinner table afterwards ends in conspiratorial laughter — the recitation is a routine worn smooth with years of familiarity.

Later, they dance — the film contains many a joyous spontaneous dance scene — and at night they trade whispers sleeping three in a bed with Grandfather. Though Selva, who also has a more ordinary life attending school, crushing on a boy and hanging with friends, is often wordlessly accompanied by the spirit of her dead mother, it’s apparent Elena is the closest thing she has to a real mother figure. And then Elena disappears.

Grandfather, waning in health, is made vague and distressed by Elena’s absence, and Selva tries to maintain the illusion that she will return. But Ubeda’s atmospheric, sensorial filmmaking imparts a sense of tragedy — of endings that must happen so beginnings can occur — from the very start, with recurring images of dead snakes and dark-skinned hands holding lifeless blue crab shells.

The Spartan poetry of Ubeda’s dialogue is perfectly complemented by Francisca Saéz Agurto’s bruised, careful cinematography. Shallow-focus close-ups pin us to Gutierrez’ bright, open face, with her wide-spaced eyes flashing temper and irritation at times but more often brimming to overflow with concern for her beloved grandfather: The bond between the old man, with his papery skin, corded neck and sinewy arms, and the young girl, so bursting with vitality and promise, is deeply moving. Across every single one of their touching exchanges — he tells her a story of being caught in a whirlpool; she tells him how well his goats ate that day — is written their story of mutual devotion.

Ubeda’s slender storyline does hit most of the expected beats of the coming-of-age narrative, but in such a supple, unforced way that it never feels formulaic. Part of what makes “Land of Ashes” such an outstanding debut is, paradoxically, its restraint. Overt signposting is minimal — even Wissam Hojeij’s delicate score is sparingly used, and never employed to elicit emotions the story itself has not earned. Mostly, its faraway melodies are knitted deep into Christian Cosgrove’s enveloping, fertile sound design, which allows even the quietest of human moments to occur against a sonic backdrop alive with crickets, frogs and the patter of water droplets on leaves.

There is magic in this Costa Rican village, which Selva — her very name redolent of the jungle nearby — can access with the matter-of-fact mysticism of a child who has grown up surrounded by it. But Ubeda’s surpassingly strange and lovely first film is both real and a fable, and finds as much bewitching power in the natural as in the supernatural. A snake writes an “S” in the cooling night sand. A young hand carefully bathes the wasting flesh of an aged body. And a girl’s clear eyes darken imperceptibly as adulthood creeps in uninvited and settles around her like dusk.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'Land of Ashes'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week), May 25, 2019. Runtime: 80 MIN. (Original title: "Ceniza Negra")

Production: (Costa Rica-Argentina-Chile-France) A Sputnik Films, Murillo Cine, La POST Producciones, Promenades Films production with the support of Programa Ibermedia, Aide aux cinémas du Monde, World Cinema Fund, Tribeca Latin American Film Fund, National Film Fund ‘El Fauno’, Costa Rica International Film Festival, Cinergia, XII International Producer’s Meeting FICCI. (Int'l sales: Totem Films, Paris.) Producer: Mariana Murillo. Co-producers: Cecilia Salim, Matías Echeverría & Millaray Cortés, Samuel Chauvin.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Sofía Quirós Ubeda. Camera (color, widescreen): Francisca Saéz Agurto. Editor: Ariel Escalante Meza. Music: Wissam Hojeij.

With: Smachleen Gutiérrez, Humberto Samuels, Hortensia Smith, Keha Brown (Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Blake Lively

    Blake Lively's 'Rhythm Section' Moved Back to 2020

    Paramount Pictures has moved the release date of Blake Lively’s “The Rhythm Section” back two months from Nov. 22 to Jan. 31, 2020, the weekend of Super Bowl LIV. The spy tale, adapted from Mark Burnell’s novels surrounding character Stephanie Patrick, is produced by James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson through their [...]

  • The Mandalorian

    'The Mandalorian': Watch the First Trailer for 'Star Wars' Series

    The gunslinging lone warrior — the Mandalorian, as they call him — calls the far reaches of the “Star Wars” galaxy home. Disney dropped the first trailer for the spinoff series during its biennial D23 convention on Friday, finally giving fans a closer look at the franchise’s newest character. “The Mandalorian” creator Jon Favreau, who [...]

  • Lady and the Tramp trailer

    'Lady and the Tramp': Disney's Live-Action Remake Gets First Trailer (Watch)

    Ready your dog-friendly bowl of spaghetti, Disney has debuted the first trailer for its live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” starring Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux. The teaser was released during Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim at the Disney + presentation. In addition to Thompson and Theroux, who play the Lady and Tramp, respectively, [...]

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

  • Eduardo Machuca

    Chile’s Eduardo Machuca Unveils Machuca Films Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile – Eduardo Machuca, the former film co-ordinator of Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched his own production company, Machuca Films. “After 25 years at the ministry, I felt I needed to tap my creative side,” said Machuca, who is also tying the knot on Saturday (Aug. 24) with a former Sanfic staffer, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content