Henry Vallejo’s unassuming, near-vérité drama “Powerful Chief” takes its title from the originary figure who founded the Incan Empire. Yet that historical reference, no doubt lost on those not well-versed in Andean indigenous history, serves less as necessary context for the film than as an added bit of perspective. The specter of the vast Incan Empire may not loom over these images of the bustling city of Puno but it does make the film’s urban tale feel like a parable for modern-day Peru, one that cannot be told without acknowledging the country’s vexed colonial history and its peoples’ centuries-long migrations.
Like many young men before him, our protagonist, Elisbán (Jesús Luque Colque), arrives in Puno with big dreams. Or, in his case, quite modest ones. A friend has egged him to leave his family and his rural way of life behind and come find work in the city. Getting off the bus with only one Sol to his name (not nearly enough to pay for a ride to his friend’s place in a cab), he begins what will, in essence, be the bulk of the film: namely, a series of episodes where his wandering through the streets leads him to odd jobs here and there. Elisbán’s friend, it seems, is out of town. And to hear his neighbor tell it, it’s unlikely he’ll be back any day soon. Stranded, this laconic young man takes the news in stride, merely walking away with perhaps the false conviction that all will be alright.
As Vallejo’s camera follows Elisbán throughout Puno, in long one-track shots that put Luque Colque’s stoic if affable face front and center, audiences get glimpses of what this city can feel like to someone like Elisbán, someone both unhoused and unemployed. More often than not, those he encounters treat Elisbán like a stray dog. Some entreat him and offer him some grace — until, that is, they feel taken advantage of. Others dismiss him outright, ignoring his very presence. Some see value in his desperation and exploit him in turn. Others see him as disposable waste and treat him accordingly. In this, the camera’s gaze feels like a rebuke to them all. Vallejo’s constant attention on Elisbán’s every move is in itself an act of generosity.
So described, “Powerful Chief” sounds like a touching character portrait. Yet Vallejo’s film seems uninterested in plumbing into Elisbán’s interiority. Luque Colque, in his feature film debut, gives Vallejo a blank canvas to work on, for better and for worse. With his mouth agape and his eyes wide, he seems constantly dumbstruck by what keeps happening to and around him. From one indignity to the next, he just keeps moving. He keeps walking. Maybe not forward toward any given goal (other than survival) but definitely not backward (mostly because he can’t afford the bus ticket back home). There’s resilience here, but Vallejo never sketches out what it is that drives Elcibán other than the mere passing of time. As such, “Powerful Chief” turns its central character into a kind of mythic figure, a haunting indigent whose interactions with food vendors, bar owners and tourist customers creates instead a clearer picture of Puno.
This is a city that’s equally rooted in its past (as we see in its late night parades with folk dancing and the ubiquitous use of Quechua and Aymara throughout) as in its present (its English-filled signs for coffee shops and bars catering to an international clientele make this clear). In its midst is Elisbán, a migrant like many others across the continent, who resigns himself to being at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. Some episodes, like one set at a bar featuring a boss who, toward the end, we find is harassing his female employees, are entrancing — more for what they suggest at the edge of the frame (like the American tourists in the foreground, or that moment of harassment in the background as Elisbán walks away) than what they capture outright.
At times “Powerful Chief” feels like a short film conceit stretched to feature length. And its rhythms, too languid to keep your attention through its many wordless stretches scored only by the cacophony of the city, can weigh heavy on you even with its short run time. Given that it was developed for years (Vallejo lost the original actor he’d cast as Elisbán days into shooting before, years later, finding Jesús and resuming work on the project) and shot by three different cameramen (including Vallejo) over several years, the film’s fits and starts feel less an indictment on its ambitions than a commentary on the filmmaker’s lack of resources. That’s especially obvious in its final moments when, with one searing final image, Vallejo both pays homage to his film’s title, and reframes Elisbán’s plight. One wishes the energy of that gut-punch of a kicker were present throughout and not just always hovering slightly off frame.