There’s a symphonic rhythm to the aptly-titled Bolivian film “The Great Movement” (“El Gran Movimiento”). Kiro Russo’s portrait of La Paz is driven more by sensory cues than by any steady sense of narrative. Ostensibly following a trio of miners who arrive at the sprawling, Andean capital city with the hopes of getting jobs, “The Great Movement” emerges instead as a dissection of this highest of Latin American urban jungles.
What first greets viewers of Russo’s film is the city as sounds. Images of buildings and traffic jams may slowly take up the screen but what immediately envelopes audiences is La Paz’s soundscape. Honking horns. Indistinct crowd chatter. School bells ringing. Construction noise. These are all mixed together as if each sound were an instrument in Russo’s urban orchestra that he’s calling up to play an overture for the film that’s to follow.
Immediately, Russo posits the thesis of his film: To understand La Paz is to lose oneself in its chaos, in those traffic jams and crowded markets, in its mass protests and its bustling streets. And that’s where Russo immediately takes us, eventually zooming into three men who stare with weariness around them at the city where they’ve just arrived. Miners by trade, they’ve come to make it in La Paz, a goal which proves more difficult once one of them (Julio César Ticona’s Elder) starts showing symptoms for a mysterious pulmonary illness. With his wheezing and his inexplicable cough, Elder’s ailments feel eerily timely, even as the sickness Russo is sketching is more of a metaphor for a rotting system that may well be, as Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), a local tramp, puts it, more of a spiritual ailment than anything modern science can quell.
There are instances where “The Great Movement” lags — or, rather, when its idiosyncratic narrative and tonal shifts make it hard to follow it along down its labyrinthine structure. One minute you’re watching a man sharpening his knife from afar, the camera an indifferent interloper, next you’re surveying the foggy mountains, finding Max in some sort of trance in the forest before alighting back in the city where a crane digs through debris. Documentary-style moments at the market where a group of women bring some needed warmth and humor to the proceedings or in the makeshift dank sleeping quarters Elder and his friends crash at, run up against more stylistically daring moments, which culminate in a feverish editing tour de force that serves as a fitting musical climax to Russo’s cacophonous urban symphony.
As the movie unfolds Russo peels back the many layers he’s working with. And with every new sequence, he constantly shifts the premise and genre of his own film: Is this a vérité-styled character portrait? Or a supernatural allegory about modernity? Might it be both, an intervention into a cinema of place that’s as much about evoking a vibe than offering a real and realistic snapshot of a city in motion?
Yet there’s an undeniable assurance in the filmmaking here and a clear point of view. There’s verve, for example, in staging what amounts to an ’80s music video — replete with fog-machine effects and “Thriller”-era group choreography — as an intermission of sorts. The sequence is just as entrancing as it sounds, begging audiences to understand the film’s own seemingly self-serious posturing as just that. It must be said that watching Russo’s non-professional ensemble dancing in the middle of the night to an electro-infused beat that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly is befuddling. But also incredibly charming. It’s the kind of scene that refuses to let these characters be defined solely by their jobs or their ailments or their place in La Paz’s social order.
Such moments suggests Russo knew there was no way to capture what makes this city such a vibrant setting without indulging in its many visual and aural contradictions. His slow pans, scored by the city’s buzzing sounds and an increasingly operatic score, gradually open up the city not with the precision of a surgical scalpel but with the haphazard care of a local butcher. “The Great Movement” seeks to reveal something indelible about La Paz through the eyes of these outsiders who nevertheless find themselves in its innermost recesses, an underbelly that’s out in the open if only you’d care to look.