“I don’t want to stay like this,” complains Dauna, the heroine of Gone with the River. “I want to grow.” But for a woman of the Warao community in north-eastern Venezuela, growth isn’t easy. Mario Crespo’s film is the ambitious, flawed attempt to record Dauna’s “life of constant battles” as she struggles to carve out a modern identity for herself as an inhabitant of at least two cultures — the Warao and the Catholic — which are bent on thwarting her development as a free woman.
Fascinating as an exploration of a life lived at the cultural interface, through its first hour the film is often beautiful and memorable, a privileged journey back in time to post-colonial America. Later it submits to the dictates of convention. But there is still enough quality in this richly suggestive film to ensure that River should flow into festivals with a feminist or ecological bent, while it elegantly raises questions about culture and identity which deserve to be debated in Spanish-speaking schoolrooms and perhaps beyond.
Loosely based on a true story (significantly, about a man rather than a woman), River was shot on location on the Orinoco Delta, using non-professional actors, in an area where most people don’t speak Spanish, the language of Crespo and his team. The Cuban-Venezuelan director brings a similar gung-ho approach to his plot, which spans thirty years and which is the flashback of a woman who has been received into the Venezuelan language academy but who, it’s revealed close to the start, has done time in jail. The film, will slowly, and somewhat jerkily, reveal how a young Warao girl should comes to find herself in such situations.
The structure leaps around from year to year coherently in retrospect, but on a first viewing the jumps are dizzying and damaging to the emotional undertow. Dauna (played by four different actresses at different points of life — Yordana Medrano, Teresa Farrera, Francia Torres and Tibisay Torres) is a Warao girl whose life outside her family is, and will be for many years, dominated by two men: her boyfriend Tarsicio (Eddie Gomez), whom she loves, and Father Julio (Diego Armando Salazar), who is her means of escape into a modernity of questionable value. Tarsicio represents tradition, Father Julio an education and therefore a different life, and the tensions between old and new are seen early on as girls are practically commandeered into attendance at the nun-run mission school, the Catholic church seeking to swell its ranks.
Eventually Dauna breaks with tradition by uncovering her face during a rite-of-passage ceremony, causing the rest of the tribe to flee in horror. The hapless Tarsicio, who for Dauna embodies an entire tradition to be rejected, is left stranded: he’s chosen the wrong girl, big time.
Inevitably there’s a certain unwanted anthropological documentary air about the early scenes which establish in outline the Warao lifestyle for the ignorant viewer — but then Warao viewers of, say, Wall Street would likely take the same position. But these earlier scenes, shot in an area of great natural beauty but without any attempt to exoticize, are sometimes also truly entrancing in a Life of Pi way: for example, when Dauna escapes from the tribe to confide her feelings to a friendly ocelot called Joi-Joi (subtly, as Dauna later becomes more westernized, Joi-Joi becomes less friendly), or when Tarsicio suddenly emerges from under the water to offer her a necklace as a symbol of his love.
There’s more than enough material in these otherworldly childhood scenes for an entire movie of such magical, insightful moments, though Crespo is careful not to idealize the native lifestyle which Dauna is rejecting. Things won’t have looked so different in South America 500 years ago, after the arrival of the Spaniards. But Crespo has gone for the full bio, with the subsequent lack of dramatic intensity, and Dauna’s later conflicts, after she becomes a teacher in the mission and a full, free life of the mind opens up to her — in her refusal, for example, to teach same-sex classes for the nuns — feel deja vu. In this life of constant battles, perhaps portraying just a couple would have been enough.
The soundwork in the delta scenes is superb, with the soft cry of the birds and the constant lapping of water making it an all-enveloping experience. The film is divided about 80/20 between Warao and Spanish, so it’s hard to make a call on the acting, which is the work of non-pros after six weeks’ prep, but each of the several Daunas seems well up to the considerable challenges offered by the role. The voiceover, coming as it does from the elderly Dauna, actually works since it’s used discreetly and acts as a commentary on the unfolding action rather than as just a restatement of it. Strikingly, the film is topped by a quote from Katherine Anne Porter.
Production company: Yakari, Alfareria Cinematografica
Cast: Yordana Medrano, Teresa Farrera, Francia Torres, Tibisay Torres, Diego Armando Salazar, Eddie Gomez, Ali Bolanos, Begona Bolanos
Director: Mario Crespo
Screenwriters: Mario Crespo, Isabel Lorenz
Producers: Mario Crespo, Isabel Lorenz, Fermin Branger
Executive producer: Adriana Herrera
Director of photography: Gerard Uzcategui
Production designer: Yvo Hernandez, Mario Crespo
Costume designer: Juan Carlos Vivas
Editor: Fermin Branger, Mario Crespo
Composer: Alonso Toro
Sales: Cinematografica Blancica
No rating, 104 minutes