'Between Sea and Land' ('La Ciénaga'): Sundance Review

Between Sea and Land still 1- H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A screenwriter/thesp's acting showcase benefits from the performance of his more seasoned co-star.

Two women sacrifice to care for an immobilized man in a slum on Colombia's coastline.

A story of disability and poverty that teeters between inspirational uplift and despair, Carlos Del Castillo and Manolo Cruz's Between Sea and Land stars a young man made dependent on the women around him by a paralyzing muscle condition. Set in a small community of stilt-shacks in a swamp near Colombia's Caribbean coast, the debut exploits its novel backdrop as one more marker of its protagonist's confinement. This plus a couple of powerful lead performances should ensure attention at fests and could generate some attention in American art houses, despite the picture's occasional missteps.

Cruz, an actor who wrote the script as a vehicle for himself, stars as Alberto, who since boyhood has suffered from dystonia, a neurological disorder that contorts his body and leaves him trapped in bed. (Though fest materials bill them as co-directors, the film's credits say Cruz wrote the pic and Del Castillo directed it.) Wired to a machine his mother Rosa (Vicky Hernandez) struggles to pay for, Alberto spends all his time on a mattress in the pair's open-air dwelling, watching his surroundings via a mirror taped to the spatula he holds in his mouth. Retaining some control over his twisted arms, he makes crayon drawings to keep himself occupied.

While Rosa plies the surrounding waters for fish to sell and eat, Alberto enjoys daily visits from Giselle (Viviana Serna), a beauty who grew up next door and showers him with affection. He's in love, of course, though his flirtation sounds to Giselle just like the wry banter he shares with any visitor to the home. When Giselle gets a job at a health foundation in a nearby city, her less frequent visits carry more emotional weight, worrying the protective Rosa.

The grumpiness Rosa displays with both Giselle and her mother derives from some old grudges that go unexplained until near the end; here and with some other characters, the script is halfhearted in its depiction of the small community's personal dynamics. Its real interest is in the triangle between Alberto and his two caregivers: Rosa, who has devoted her whole existence to him; and Giselle, who hopes to find him charity medical assistance through her new job. While Cruz is fully committed to this physically demanding role (likely sustaining himself with visions of My Left Foot-style accolades), Hernandez matches him beat for beat with a maternal stubbornness so profound it sometimes overshadows Alberto's struggles. When these two interact onscreen, the efforts of composer David Murillo R. to stoke our emotions with his trying-too-hard score are not only unneeded but distracting.

After getting us fully invested in the poignant quasi-competition between Rosa and Giselle, the picture takes a risky turn in its final act, following parallel attempts to help Alberto that, at best, seem headed for an O. Henry-ish collision. Its eventual resolution will strike some viewers as profound and others as manipulative, but, despite its lack of polish, Between Sea and Land has more to offer than the average affliction melodrama.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Mago Films
Cast: Manolo Cruz, Vicky Hernandez, Viviana Serna, Jorge Cao, Mile Vergara, Javier Saenz
Director: Carlos Del Castillo
Screenwriter: Manolo Cruz
Producers: Manolo Cruz, Robespierre Rodriguez, Carlos Del Castillo
Director of photography: Robespierre Rodriguez
Production designer: Arley Garzon Gomez
Editor: German A. Duarte
Composer: David Murillo R.
Casting director: Manolo Cruz
Sales: Global Screen

In Spanish

Not rated, 97 minutes