'Dust on the Tongue' ('Tierra en la lengua'): VLAFF Review

A slow-burning, intense and unsettling tale of rural tragedy featuring a central performance of remarkable power

Ruben Mendoza's second feature is a study of an aging tyrant that's a strong contender for Colombia's Academy Award nomination

In Dust on the Tongue, an aging patriarch with failing powers asks his grandchildren to kill him, and from that simple, primitive idea Ruben Mendoza spins a compelling and intense drama that wryly touches on some of the deeper questions of the human condition. Centered around a commanding performance from Jairo Salcedo, making a remarkable debut as the tyrant in question, and clearly driven by the director's intimate love-hate relationship with the world he's portraying, it's a film that effortlessly hints at deeper social and political meanings without ever losing dramatic focus and drive. Dust has already blown into Latin American festivals, and further exposure would be richly deserved.

Following the death of his wife, rural landowner Silvio (Salcedo) invites his grandchildren Lucia (Alma Rodriguez) and Fernando (Gabriel Mejia) to his remote ranch in Colombia's western plains with an unusual proposition: If they kill him, they'll inherit his property; and if they don't, they'll get nothing. "Suicide," he argues in a telling phrase, "is for queers." He imagines himself floating off downriver, four or five buzzards on his belly.

In the words of his dead wife, Silvio is a man who started with nothing, had everything, and now again has nothing, and it's testimony to the depth and power of Salcedo's performance that he's able to communicate that whole journey. (The character is based on Mendoza's own grandfather, while Salcedo has lived in the region all his life.) Grotesque, pitiful and absurd, sexist to the core, Silvio has fathered dozens of children in the region, but old age has crept up on him. He's often in physical anguish, humiliatingly he's no longer able to mount a horse, and of course technology is beyond him. It's a beautifully delivered and directed performance.

Though Silvio continues to emptily threaten, his grandchildren don't take him seriously at first. But later they'll come to understand the real danger his old-world attitudes represent to the new. The second part of the film effectively has the grandchildren inflicting a slow-burning revenge on the old man, violence still haunting the lands where love cannot take root.

Among other themes, Dust on the Tongue is about how deeply this violence is woven into Colombia — like Silvio, a nation which thinks in violent terms and unthinkingly does great violence to itself. The revolutionary forces of the FARC, who have kidnapped Silvio three times, and the consequent issues of who own the land, loom large.

The film doesn't simply position Lucia and Fernando as the new, bright future but shows them as being in some way as useless and as lost as Silvio believes they are, with their yoga and their badly played and sung songs. Dead animals are regularly used to grisly symbolic effect, particularly in one scene showing the aftermath of the slaying of a herd of horses. Together Mendoza and DP Juan Carlos Gil create several such haunting scenes.

Slow but never relaxed, the rhythm of life in the vast expanses of the Colombian wilderness is recreated with Mendoza's insider knowledge, and though his decision to use only natural light lends some scenes beauty and authenticity, at others it's just too hard to make out what's going on. The visual darkness is a counterpoint to the film's silences, which lengthen, somewhat to the point of straining patience, as it builds to its grim climax. The song over the final credits — Adriana Lizcano's verion of Tu ausencia — is well worth waiting for, and is about the gentlest thing about this brutal, effective film.

Production companies: Diafragma Fabrica de Peliculas, Cine Sud Promotions, Hangar Films
Cast: Jairo Salcedo, Alma Rodriguez, Gabriel Mejia
Director, screenwriter: Ruben Mendoza
Producer: Daniel Garcia, Mendoza
Executive producers: Maria Fernanda Barrientos, Natalia Perez, Thierry Lenouvel, Fabiola Moreno de Mendoza, Rosa de Moreno
Director of photography: Juan Carlos Gil
Production designer: Oscar Navarro
Costume designer: Mango Guzman
Editors: Gustavo Vasco, Mendoza
Sales: Diafragma Fabrica de Peliculas

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