Review: ‘Utama,’ starring José Calcina, Luisa Quispe and Santos Choque

February 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Luisa Quispe and José Calcina in “Utama” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Utama”

Directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the highlands of Bolivia, the dramatic film “Utama” features a Latino and indigenous cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly married couple, who are dealing with a water drought in their rural area and the husband’s health problems, are visited by their city-dwelling grandson, who tries to convince them to move to the city.

Culture Audience: “Utama” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in meditative movies about family relationships and aging.

A scene from “Utama” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Utama” tells a simple yet effective story that draws parallels between stages of family life and stages in weather conditions. This drama’s slow pacing isn’t going to appeal to all viewers, but it’s a peek into rural Bolivia that can be entrancing. The movie’s cast members also bring such authenticity to their roles, “Utama” could be mistaken for a documentary.

Written and directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, “Utama” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. The movie doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, so viewers should know in advance that there are long stretches of the movie where no one speaks at all. “Utama” has a relatively small number of people in its cast. The movie revolves around three of these characters.

Virginio (played by José Calcina) and his wife Sisa (played by Luisa Quispe) are a happily married, elderly couple living their senior years in their humble ranch abode somewhere in the highlands of Bolivia. Virginio is a llama rancher who spends his days herding and taking care of the llamas. Sisa maintains the house and is responsible for gathering food and water.

They’ve gotten used to their low-key, routine life, except for two big disruptions: A water drought has plagued the area for several months. And, more recently, Virginio has been having a respiratory problem that includes a persistent hacking cough and difficulty breathing. Virginio insists that he feels fine, even though it’s obvious that something is definitely wrong with his health.

One day, Virginio and Sisa get a surprise visit from their grandson Clever (played by Santos Choque), who is in his early 20s. Clever’s father is the estranged son of Virginio and Sisa. The son’s name is never mentioned. The son appears to be the only child of Virginio and Sisa, because there’s no mention of them having any other children.

Throughout the movie, there are hints that Virginio stopped talking to this son years ago, for reasons that aren’t fully explained in the movie. However, what is clear is that Virginio thinks of this son as the “black sheep” of the family. And Virginio’s opinion of Clever isn’t much better. By contrast, Sisa treats Clever in a loving and welcoming way, but Virginio is the dominant and very stubborn spouse in this household.

The biggest flaw in “Utama” is that it tends to be repetitive with any of these three scenarios:

  • Virginio insults and argues with Clever, who reacts by denying whatever accusations Virginio throws his way.
  • Sisa worries and complains about the drought.
  • Virginio coughs and wheezes in an increasingly alarming manner, but he denies that anything is wrong with his health.

As soon as Clever arrives, Virginio accuses Clever of being sent by Clever’s father. Virginio thinks that Clever was sent as punishment for something that Clever did, and that there’s some kind of hidden agenda for this visit. Clever admits that his relationship with his father isn’t going so well, because Clever says that he’d rather stay away from home, so that he doesn’t fight with his father. However, Clever denies that his father sent Clever to visit Virginio and Sisa.

As a peace offering and gifts, Clever has brought some food, which Virginio is not impressed with because he thinks it’s some kind of bribe. And when Clever suggests that Virginio and Sisa move to the city, where they can get access to better health care, Virginio angrily says that he will never move. Sisa seems to want to go along with whatever Virginio decides.

Virginio gruffly says in response to Clever’s suggestion to move to the city: “We’re fine!” Clever replies: “But there [in the city], you could be so much better.” When Clever mentions that Clever’s father thinks it’s a good idea for Virginio and Clever to move to the city, Virginio snaps back: “Your father has no say in this matter!”

More than once, Virginio calls Clever a “brat” or “spoiled.” Virginio thinks Clever is a pampered city boy, so he demands that Clever help him with the llama herding and other ranch duties. Clever reluctantly follows Virginio’s orders. Virginio and Clever argue around the dining table, and Clever usually says some version of “I don’t understand you, Grandpa!” When Virginio gets too insulting toward Clever for Sisa’s comfort, she tells Virginio to stop being so harsh to Clever.

Because of the drought, Sisa has to walk a longer distance than usual to get water. The closest place where she and other people in the area go is a small stream in a desert area. “Utama” has multiple scenes of Virginio, Sisa and Clever doing everyday, mundane tasks. Clever has not said how long he plans to stay, but Virginio is convinced that Clever’s father is using Clever as a messenger to try to persuade Virginio and Sisa to move to the city.

The movie places so much emphasis on the drought and on Virginio’s declining health, it’s very easy to predict how “Utama” is going to end. Before that happens, the movie shows if the strained relationship between Virginio and Clever ends up changing. And although Virginio has a low opinion of Clever’s father, Clever says his father left the area because he didn’t want to be around Virginio anymore. It will make viewers wonder who’s mostly to blame for this father and son having such a bitter falling out.

One of the best aspects of “Utama” is how the cinematography (by Barbara Alvarez) impressively captures Bolivian life in the highlands. There’s a simplicity to this life that’s devoid of urban stresses but brings difficulties in other ways. Clever’s cell phone is the only modern device seen in the movie, which shows a rural lifestyle that has existed for centuries.

Most of all, “Utama” is a compelling snapshot of a specific family’s perspectives and definitions of loyalty and home. It’s an interesting presentation of the dilemma that some people face, when the have to choose between clinging to old traditions or embracing new ways of living. Not everyone watching “Utama” can relate to this rural ranch lifestyle, but most viewers can find some emotional connection to the movie’s characters, who are trying to get through life in the best way that they can, even if not everyone around them agrees with their choices.

UPDATE: Kino Lorber will release “Utama” in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Taste of Sky’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

"A Taste of Sky"
“A Taste of Sky” (Photo by Jeff Louis Peterman)

“A Taste of Sky”

Directed by Michael Y. Lei

International premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

Award-winning restaurants and chefs around the world have gotten a lot of exposure, thanks to non-fiction shows like “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” and “Chef’s Table.” So when there’s a documentary about a risk-taking restaurant started by a world-renowned chef, that movie better deliver something extraordinary. Unfortunately, “A Taste of Sky” falls short of those expectations and ends up being a conventional documentary with some serious flaws.

“A Taste of Sky,” the first feature film from director Michael Y. Lei, is about the creation of Gustu, a fine-dining restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia. What made Gustu different from other Bolivian restaurants is that it was founded by Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, whose Noma restaurant in Copenhagen was named Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine from 2010 to 2012 and in 2014. Meyer also had the idea of making Gustu a culinary school for underprivileged youth who could train to become chefs. “A Taste of Sky” focuses on two of those students: Kenzo, an ambitious hunter who was raised in the Bolivian Amazon, and Maria Claudia, who is from the Andes high plains.

To its credit, the movie doesn’t shy away from the “white savior”/colonialism issue. Meyer talks about it and is fully aware that he can be perceived as an arrogant European who thinks he can tell Bolivians how to run a successful restaurant in their own country. There’s a sequence in the movie showing Bolivian chefs or restaurateurs sitting at a table, essentially saying the same thing, as they criticize Meyer for founding Gustu to boost his own ego.

Meyer denies that his intentions are driven by his ego and a “white savior” mentality, but his denials don’t ring true when viewers see that the top managers he’s hired to get Gustu up and running are Europeans. A restaurant owner who cared more about cultural inclusivity would have hired at least one qualified local Bolivian to be one of the first managers of the restaurant. Instead, the Bolivians shown working in the restaurant are all subservient to their European teachers/supervisors. Unfortunately, director Lei does not question this ethnic inequality in the film. Perhaps he was too star-struck by Meyer to ask why Bolivians were excluded from Gustu’s initial management team. The film’s written epilogue mentions that a Bolivian employee of Gustu was eventually promoted to general manager about a year after the restaurant launched. Unfortunately, the viewers of this movie don’t get to see any Bolivians in positions of power at Gustu.

And that’s not the only problem with this film. “A Taste of Sky” has a lengthy interview with Meyer telling his life story, but there’s a corny gimmick that tries to be cute: His pre-teen daughter Augusta asks the questions in the interview. It’s unknown if Augusta came up with the questions herself or if an adult provided her with the questions, but the gimmick guarantees that Meyer would be asked very easy questions. There is virtually no investigative journalism in “A Taste of Sky.”

The movie has some footage of Kenzo and Maria Claudia learning chef skills and visiting their families back in their hometowns, but it’s all framed with the tone that they would be poor, downtrodden Bolivian people with a dismal future if not for this restaurant run by Europeans who have saved them from a life of misery. Kenzo’s brother, who was also enrolled in the chef school, had to drop out, in order to help their family take care of their farm. It’s not the catastrophe that the movie wants us to think it is, mainly because Kenzo’s brother doesn’t have the passion for cooking that Kenzo has. Kenzo’s family is poor, but they’re happy, they’re close-knit, and they live comfortably off of their land. Money can’t buy that type of family happiness.

Kenzo is seen as a bright and confident pupil, and his story is given more weight than Maria Claudia’s story. There is brief mention of sexism, as Maria Claudia talks about how her family didn’t think it was appropriate for her to be enrolled in the school because she’s a woman. It’s clear that not having the emotional support of her family has affected Maria Claudia’s confidence. But sexism in the restaurant industry overall— the industry has a long history of giving male chefs more power and better opportunities than female chefs—is barely acknowledged in the movie. It’s not too much of a surprise when a male chef at a prestigious restaurant in Spain invites Kenzo to be an apprentice. Maria Claudia doesn’t get a similar opportunity. One could argue that Kenzo is simply more talented than Maria Claudia, but the movie doesn’t really go into specifics about who are the most talented students in the program.

Worst of all, for a documentary about the opening of a restaurant, there is hardly any mention of the restaurant’s first menu or how the restaurant was marketed to customers. There are brief glimpses of food after it’s been plated, but what’s actually on the plate isn’t really explained. Crocodile is mentioned as a popular Bolivian entrée, but the movie never details what makes Gustu’s menu so special from the menus at other Bolivian restaurants.

In the movie, Bolivia is described as a third-world country that’s the poorest in South America, and Meyer wanted to launch Gustu as a fine-dining restaurant to help uplift the Bolivian economy. But the movie doesn’t even mention how pricing was chosen in order to market a “luxury” restaurant in a “poor” country. Customers aren’t interviewed, so there’s no sense of who goes to this restaurant. There are some lovely shots of the Bolivian terrain, and plenty of scenes that take place in the kitchen, but viewers don’t get to experience Gustu’s inner ambience from a customer’s point of view. In the end, “A Taste of Sky” could have been a fascinating documentary about a groundbreaking restaurant. Instead, it seems as if the filmmakers bent too far backwards to accommodate Meyer’s ego, and the whole movie looks like a superficial vanity project.

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