After more than a decade away, a man returns to his
former home outside a village in Colombia in order to help his estranged family
in their time of need. He meets the daughter-in-law he'd only heard about, reunites with his ex-wife, and seems a bit surprised at the sight of the five-year-old boy who answers the door and asks the older man if he's his
We first see Alfonso (Haimer Leal) from a considerable
distance, slowly walking toward the camera on a dirt road surrounded by stalks
of sugarcane. He seems to come as from the ether. Before we can get a glimpse
of his face, he disappears in a cloud of dust from a passing truck.
This is a man whose past and present fit comfortably
inside the small suitcase he has owned for decades. Where this man has
been, what he has been doing, and why he has been out of contact with his
family for all these years are, perhaps, vital questions. They don't matter,
though, in these first moments of introduction and reunion—or indeed for most
of the film. What does matter is that the man is here for his family now.
Writer/director César Augusto Acevedo's "Land and
Shade" is a film of uncommon restraint and considerable compassion. It
presents a seemingly helpless situation and focuses on the tiny, fleeting
moments of regret, resentment, reconciliation, hope, loyalty and love within
and between these characters.
Through those moments, a precise, detailed picture of
this particular family forms. There's a degree of external conflict here, mostly
to do with a corrupt farming industry and a workers' strike, but it's kept to a
minimum. The vast majority of the story's conflict is in the way the characters
react to their circumstances.
Under those circumstances, the bonds between this family are
tenuous, although a significant portion of that fragility is on account of the
bonds themselves. Each character understands that their relationships are an essential parts of their lives. As with any family, there
are various relationships within this unit—between fathers and sons, mothers
and sons, wives and husbands. With financial and physical strains taking their
toll, it's inevitable that a character's efforts to preserve one relationship
will come at the cost of harming another.
The film's conflict is primarily about the impossible
task of prioritizing these connections. How, for example, can a man possibly
decide between his roles as a son, to a mother who already has been abandoned
and who relies upon him for the necessities of living, and as a husband, to a
wife who wants to leave her husband's childhood home because she is convinced
there is nothing there for her own family? How can a woman choose between
staying with her sick husband and leaving him to die in order to provide her
son with a better chance at life?
Gerardo (Edison Raigosa) is a son, a husband and a father.
He is slowly but surely succumbing to a potentially fatal respiratory illness.
His mother Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) refuses to leave her home in the middle of the
acres of sugarcane, because this place is where she has made her life. His wife
Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) knows that this place will offer nothing for the
future of their son Manuel (José Felipe Cárdenas).
She also knows that the constant burning of the cane,
which results in a nightly rain of ash upon the family's home, is killing her
husband. Meanwhile, Alfonso takes to doing the household chores and tending to
Manuel. He may have abandoned his family, but he is, as Esperanza points out, a
good man who has made mistakes. All of these characters have erred to one
extent or another, but there is no blame to be passed to any of them.
There also are no easy answers to the scenario Acevedo
has established. Gerardo, like his mother, is too stubborn to listen to the
obvious—too loyal to and worried about Alicia to even consider leaving her.
Everyone is convinced that he will regain his health with bedrest and the
windows of his room closed, to prevent the dangerous ash from filling his lungs.
It's the blind conviction of people who are convinced
that nothing bad can befall a loved one, even as all evidence—the way Gerardo's
breathing gradually becomes raspier and more strained—points to the contrary.
It's the same sort of conviction that pits Esperanza, who—with her
mother-in-law—has taken over her husband's job of harvesting the crop, against
her co-workers in the sugarcane fields. They haven't been paid in weeks, and
the bosses have plenty of excuses to guarantee payment "tomorrow."
The rest of the crew wants to strike. Esperanza worries
that all of her hard work will be for nothing if the bosses decide that
striking workers aren't worth paying at all. Acevedo obviously has a political
point to make here, but the argument is so inextricably linked to the family's
struggles that it never overreaches or preaches.
Acevedo and cinematographer Mateo Guzmán observe these
interactions from a distance and with an almost impassive sense of objectivity.
There are long takes with minimal or no camera movements—a tableau of Gerardo's
family at his bedside, a static shot from afar of three generations of the
family enjoying the shared knowledge of birdcalls, a heartfelt embrace in the
night when Esperanza learns that her son's birthday was not ruined on account
of her extended work day, or a simple dolly shot that follows Alfonso teaching
his grandson to fly a kite. The film lingers on these moments. It allows them
to breathe and offers us a chance to savor Acevedo's naturalistic approach,
which extends from the lighting to the performances.
As circumstances worsen and the characters realize that
they must make certain difficult decisions, the camera gets closer. Acevedo keeps us at a comfortable distance for so long that there's a
visceral impact to witnessing the consequences of action and inaction on such
an intimate level. Even as the world literally burns around this family,
"Land and Shade" continues to be about those moments of loyalty and
love, albeit with the somber realization of their price.