Anybody wanting any lessons on how to be socially conscious without being too obviously tendentious in portraying a regional struggle in film ought to take notes, because in his full-length debut, The Colors of the Mountain, Colombian filmmaker Carlos César Arbeláez manages just that—an accomplishment made only the more astonishing by the fact that in the film Arbeláez also engages another, equally perilous narrative archetype: the loss of innocence in the face of trauma.
Everything about The Colors of the Mountain is understated, but understated in such a way that the skillful omissions strewn throughout never jar, but serve only to deepen the pull of the narrative. The film sidesteps the biggest trap in dealing with these two archetypes-verging-on-cliché: it is, for one, completely aware of the archetypes, but more importantly never lets this self-awareness translate into the kind of heavy-handedness that would easily sink any narrative as delicate and brief as this. Which is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with the scope of the film’s ambitions—for a debut, The Colors of the Mountain is marvelously ambitious—only to relay that rather than laying it on thick, as it were, the film opts instead to work by similitude. This may be the greatest risk it takes, and also its plainest virtue.
The story is simple enough: nine-year-old Manuel loves to play soccer with his friends; he gets a new ball for his ninth birthday; he loses the ball; he tries to get it back. That’s it. And yet that kind of a bullet-point synopsis hardly does it justice, because the film works its greatest magic in the semicolons, so to speak. Manuel’s father raises several animals and sells milk and pigs to make a living. In one of the earliest sequences, we see a group of camouflaged men come up to his house while he is milking his cow with Manuel, who is asking whether he can give the calf a name (the father says no and doesn’t want him to become too attached because it is going to be killed sooner or later). Seeing the men, the father takes Manuel and hides him behind the small hut where they keep the mother cow and its nameless calf. Manuel cuts himself in the process and the father has to put his hand over his mouth to keep him from crying out. The men ask after Manuel’s father to the mother, who brings them something to drink.
Manuel’s father hasn’t been going to certain meetings, it would seem. And then they leave, threatening that the father had better show up the following Sunday. And on that menacing note, the tone is set for another of the film’s greatest moments, when just a few minutes afterwards Manuel and his friends are playing with his new ball and it is stolen by a pig that has run free. Men come looking for the pig and all of a sudden it blows up. It was a landmine. The film has not once lectured the viewer, not once obtruded a message onto him, but has, in the most graceful manner possible, suggested the course it will follow for the remaining runtime. This ability to pare down scenes to the absolute least necessary to convey the action, the forces at work on the action, etc., is something that many filmmakers don’t learn in a whole career, and these are the kinds of filmmakers that progressively make longer and more ponderous films in order to ‘explain their visions,’ as if, to paraphrase Queen Gertrude, more matter meant more art. Arbeláez evinces a keen understanding of the fact that there is nothing more artful and more difficult to achieve than brevity, nimbleness, lightness—a jaunty, fearless minimalism that reminds one of Terrence Malick’s two earliest outings, Badlands and Days of Heaven.
Like those two films, The Colors of the Mountain also shares a penchant for powerful images, especially the titular colors of the mountain, a reference to the mural the teacher has the children paint on the school walls, which are time and again tagged with threatening graffiti by the guerrilla. Manuel is a fountain of distractions: not only does he spend all of his time outside of class playing soccer, but he spends what time he is in class drawing and coloring, and this affords us some of the film’s most memorable touches. When he needs a yellow colored pencil the girl sitting beside him in class lends it to him. Manuel’s friend Julian later jokes that the girl is Manuel’s girlfriend. The next day the girl is absent from class. Her family has left because of the danger posed by the guerilla to those who opt out of the same meetings that Manuel’s father has been avoiding.
Over the course of the film many more students are absent, and each time the teacher proceeds to absently cross their names off the roster with a red colored pencil. The repetitions and variations of this simple gesture become quite moving—not because there’s a full Hollywood orchestra blaring in the background beckoning the viewer to cry a week’s worth of hydration into their popcorn bowl, but because one begins to understand on a deeper level what it actually means. The image is gradually and subtly filled with meaning and the surface emptiness of mere repetition serves only to conceal a profoundly moving subtext. When Julian’s father comes to pick him up from class, the viewer instantly knows what is going to happen—not because it is predictable, but because one has almost been so thoroughly absorbed by the film’s affective language. Which is why one could very well subtitle the movie, or How to Portray Emotions on Screen.
When in the final sequence Manuel slips on his hood as he, his mother and little brother take off after his father has been borne away by the guerilla, the look on his face says it all: at nine years of age, not only has he lost his illusions, but he has also been shorn along with them of something more important, namely, his innocence. That the final sequence almost suggests a monochrome is just another of its deft, confident touches: the final word on what the colors of the mountain mean, what Manuel’s pictures meant, and what their departure itself means. But, to paraphrase a slightly less dignified female lead than Queen Gertrude, as Rita mutters in her sleep just before the famous Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Dr., ‘no hay orquesta!’ And thank goodness for that.
As with other Film Movement releases, the film comes with a lot of promotional trailers for other films, but also pre-packaged with a textual, menu-based biography of the director and the film’s original theatrical trailer. The movie, shot in Spanish, comes armed only with English subtitles, which makes sense given that it is only distributed in the North American region. There is little else in the way of extras.
Short Film: THE SWIMMERS by Carlos Lechuga
There is, however, a charming, thirteen-minute-long short called “The Swimmers” directed by Cuban Carlos Lechuga. It makes sense that it should be bundled with The Colors of the Mountain, but only barely. The film portrays a swim instructor teaching kids to swim in Havana—with the almost absurd twist that the pool they’re using is actually completely empty.
The Colors of the Mountain is a debut as assured as any in recent memory, tapping expertly into a brand of empathy and a way of portraying the innocence of youth that doesn’t once smack of artifice or sound an off note of bathos, all of which is to be commended only the more because of the subject matter.