Altiplano -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

PARIS -- Pollution is bad for you. Mercury kills. When villagers in the Peruvian Andes living near a mine prone to mercury spills start developing headaches, going blind and dying off, it doesn't take rocket science to work out what's going on. So that when halfway through Brosens & Woodworth's second feature, "Altiplano," an eye specialist intones wonderingly, "There's something wrong," the audience may be inclined to snigger. But the audience may already have switched off by then.

"Altiplano" is structured around the stories of two wholly dissimilar women: Grace, a disillusioned war photographer whose husband, Max, a surgeon specializing in removing cataracts, has gone off to work among the South American Indians, and Saturnina, a young Indian woman who has just become engaged. Saturnina's fiance Ignacio sets off on a journey up the mountainside to seek the "magic water" he needs for the wedding ceremony but dies as a result of mercury contamination.

Angered by what they perceive as the failure of science to cure their ailments, the villagers turn against the specialists at the eye clinic, and Max is killed in the ensuing ructions. Grace travels to the village to find out what has happened, but her path never crosses that of Saturnina, who takes drastic measures of her own.

It is hard to tell at which audience the directing team are aiming. The ecology message is too obvious and too uncontentious to be worth stating. Brosens & Woodworth (they like ampersands and prefer to eschew first-names in the directorial credit -- for the record, it's Peter and Jessica) describe their work as "spiritual" cinema (the quotes are their own). The spiritual content however fails to rise above the cliche level of finding mystery in everything and placing nature on a pedestal.

The movie is self-consciously artsy, and too often the spectator senses the filmmakers striving after effect, whether through circular pans, black and white sequences, posed compositions, dummy figures posted in the landscape or the frequent use of masks. The characterization is thin and dialogue tends to be leaden.

What's to admire? The Andean landscapes are breathtaking in Francisco Gozon's cinematography, and Magaly Solier -- who starred in this year's Golden Bear-winning "The Milk of Sorrow" in Berlin -- emotes over and above the call of duty as Saturnina. Taken individually, some of B&W's effects are indeed striking, but the overall impression is one of overblown platitude.

Production companies: Bo Films, Ma.Ja.De Fiction, Entre Chien et Loup, Lemming Fil
Cast: Magalu Solier, Jasmin Tabatabai, Olivier Gourmet, Behi Djanati Atai, Edgar Condori, Sonia Loaiza
Sales: Meridiana Films
Directors/screenwriters: Peter Brosens, Jessica Woodworth
Director of photography: Fransciso Gozon
Production designer: Guillermo Isa, Anne Fournier
Editor: Nico Leunen

No rating, 110 minutes