Saturday, November 27, 2021

Kiro Russo’s Bolivian Cinema

One of the most lovely cinematic debuts I came across in 2016 was that of Kiro Russo’s Viejo calavera (Dark Skull).

Dark Skull (2016)

The film shed a new light and perspective on the lives of Bolivian miners. While there are a handful of documentaries about Bolivian mines, there is a shortage of fictional films about the hard working people who work themselves into the ground in these dark places. Russo’s Dark Skull goes a long way in addressing that imbalance.

Dark Skull is a work of immense creativity that uses the darkened settings of the mines to play with light/darkness. The story follows Elder (Julio César Ticona) who starts working in the mines after the death of his father. Elder isn’t really interested in working in the mine and would rather hunt for his next alcoholic high. However, his father’s death changes the trajectory of his life leaving him with no choice but to work.

Kiro Russo’s film shows us the routines, rituals of the miners and how they try to make the best of their situation.

Dark Skull plays with the technique and impressively uses a Sergei Eisenstein montage to emphasize the machinery used in the mines. There is also a surprising presence of pulsating music which elevates the film.

After such an impressive debut, I looked forward to Russo’s next film and thankfully, it arrived few months ago at the Venice Film Festival.

El Gran Movimiento (The Great Movement) can be considered the next chapter in the life of Elder (played again by Julio Cezar Ticona) after he leaves the dark mines of Dark Skull for the city life of La Paz. The visual contrast between the two films is impressive. Dark Skull shows us the dimly light underground mines while El Gran Movimiento takes us to the dizzying high altitudes of La Paz. Instead of the rhythms of the mines, Russo now shows us the rituals and rhythms of the local market where Elder finds a job. 

The sights and noises of the market are astutely captured and overload the senses in a remarkable sequence near the end of the film, a montage like segment which now appears to be Russo’s cinematic signature. Another Russo signature looks to be the usage of pulsating music including an eye catching dance number that unexpectedly drops in the film. El Gran Movimiento takes on a very relevant contemporary urgency when Elder starts coughing near the end of the film. His disease is unknown as is the cure. While Elder is at the local clinic, we hear the news recounting case counts in other Bolivian cities. That is when we realize what Elder has. Immediately following that sequence, we see crowded streets and markets. An invisible clock hovers over the frame with the audience knowing that it is only a matter of time before everything will shut down. We don’t to get see the fate of the market but instead we get to see what happens with Elder when a faith healer is brought in to cure him.

Elder in El Gran Movimiento (2021)

It was a 5 year gap between Russo’s two films. I hope the wait for the next movie isn’t that long as he is clearly a creative director with a unique voice.

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