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Review: ‘Alamar’

Simple Elegance

Jorge Machado and Natan Machado Palombini in

Credit: Film Movement

Above: Jorge Machado and Natan Machado Palombini in "Alamar."

Mexico's "Alamar" (opening November 12 at UltraStar Mission Valley at Hazard Center) arrives like a breath of fresh air reminding us of cinema's potential for simple and elegant beauty.

Pedro González-Rubio has a background as a documentary cinematographer. So the fact that his first feature looks and feels like non-fiction should come as no surprise. In many ways "Alamar" could be called a documentary. In fact, it is probably more real and honest than many of the recent films that label themselves as non-fiction. But González-Rubio respects the truth and resists calling his film a documentary. He uses real people but openly admits to scripting some of what occurs in the film.

The film opens with home movies and photos chronicling a brief but ill-fated relationship between Jorge Machado (a wiry, long-haired Mexican who’s lived most of his life away from civilization) and Roberta Palombini (an Italian who enjoys city life). The couple have a young son, Natan. Roberta plans to take him with her to live in Rome. But before they leave, Jorge has the opportunity to spend some quality time with the boy. He takes him out on a fishing trip so he can pass on the simple skills he learned as a boy, a kind of handing down of traditions.

"Alamar" reminds me of some Iranian films, especially Majid Majidi's recent "The Song of Sparrows." Both of these films offer an unpretentious yet poetic slice of ordinary life. They let their stories unfold in a naturalistic manner so we do not feel any contrived manipulation. Yet both directors are very much in charge and in control. They craft their films but with such a graceful, delicate touch that we never feel the filmmaker intruding on the scene. This in not "mumblecore" filmmaking in which filmmakers just pick up a camera and think they and their friends are interesting enough to just record anything and everything that happens. That kind of reality is sometimes too ploddingly and boringly "real." Majidi and González-Rubio, on the other hand, are artists with a gift for capturing life as it unfolds.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Film Movement

Natan Machado Palombini in "Alamar."

Set against the stunning Banco Chinchorro coral reefs in Mexico, González-Rubio delivers a lovely portrait of a father and son bonding. Jorge shows his son how to fish, how to tie knots, how to swim underwater, and more. We feel almost voyeuristic because the scenes feel so real and intimate. We feel like we might be intruding on them. We clearly see Jorge's love for his child and Natan's growing closeness to his father. We understand that this is a very different life from the one he will have with his mother and it is a beautiful experience that will long be remembered.

"Alamar" is not about plot. In a certain sense nothing really happens, and there isn't a conventional linear narrative. Things just happen and we feel lucky to be there to see what occurs. Natan catches a fish, they share a meal, they swim… life goes on. But there are moments of unexpected and exquisite beauty. Take a scene where Natan learns how to scale a fish. When he's done he looks down at the deck of the boat and sees all the scales glistening in the sun. It is such a simple yet rapturous image, and we feel as though González-Rubio is allowing us to appreciate the little things in life that we might not otherwise take the time to notice. He also has a nice way of tying images together. So we see bugs crawling around the boat, and then later Jorge and Natan catch one to feed to a bird. It provides a circular sense of life and provides its own quirky sense of plot to the proceedings.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Film Movement

Natan Machado Palombini and Jorge Machado in "Alamar."

"Alamar" (rated G and in Spanish and Italian with English subtitles) is a quiet film that observes the rhythms of daily rituals and pays respect to the kind of simple life where a man pulls his food from the sea and land around him. "Alamar" could have become just a pretty picture book of shimmering blue-green seas and vibrant coral reefs but González-Rubio invests us emotionally in his characters. His film is both an intimate tale of a father and a son as well as a portrait of a tradition based way of life that is slowly fading. As the big bloated Oscar hopefuls start to lumber into theaters, make sure to take a moment to appreciate this delicate cinematic poem.

"Alamar" screens along with "Seres Genesis" and "Depositarios" as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival's monthly film series Cinema en tu Idioma.

Companion viewing: "The Song of Sparrows," "Cave of the Yellow Dog," "Treeless Mountain," "Nobody Knows"

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