The Colors of the Mountain: Film Review

Appealing if slightly underpowered tale of cute kids, football and civil war.

SAN SEBASTIAN — It's always encouraging when a director recognizes when he has a trump card in his possession and proceeds to play it wisely. A case in point is the wonderfully expressive and utterly fresh child actor Hernán Mauricio Ocampo, star of "The Colors of the Mountain," a crowd-pleasing, small-scale tale of innocence in peril from first-time Colombian writer-director Carlos César Arbeláez.

Arbeláez beat off strong competition to take the keenly-contested and lucrative ($120,000) Kutxa New Directors Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where his movie world-premiered to very warm audience reactions. It's likely to be a similar story at festivals worldwide over the next year or so, as "Colors"operates at the more accessible end of the arthouse spectrum, wrapping up an essentially tough, even bleak narrative within a lively, soccer-themed evocation of childhood. Theatrical distribution is possible for this modestly-budgeted Colombian/Panamanian co-production, given the number of sellable elements here - especially in Spanish-speaking countries and other territories where the Beautiful Game reigns supreme.

Shot on video by DP Oscar Jiménez in a remote, mountainous and breathtakingly scenic corner of rural Colombia near the border with Panama, "The Colors of the Mountain" ("Los colores de la montaña") takes as its background the on-going conflict involving violent guerrillas. One by one, local families are fleeing to safer locations, resulting in a dwindling attendance-roll at the very basic village school.

Among the pupils in this single class of mixed-age pupils are the sparky, sports-mad Manuel (Ocampo), his slightly older best friend Julian (Nolberto Sánchez) and the hapless, self-pitying, bespectacled albino 'Poca Luz,’ played by the scene-stealing Genaro Aristizábal. One day Manuel's prized possession, a brand new soccer ball, is kicked into a field which turns out to be land-mined, causing much consternation among the boys who can see their favorite toy but are prevented from retrieving it. Graver dangers are, however, lurking just around the corner.

While a couple of bloody corpses are occasionally glimpsed — rendering the movie unsuitable for pre-teens — "Colors of the Mountain" largely keeps the horrors of war off-screen, opting instead to build up tension very gradually amid lighter scenes of droll comic relief in scenes that nimbly capture the pleasures and pains of childhood bonds. Given Arbeláez's evident fondness for his characters, we're in little doubt that none of them are going to be blown sky-high by a landmine, a fate suffered by an escaping sow in one of the film's occasional touches of CGI.

But the old trick of dramatizing adult conflicts through children's uncomprehending eyes is handled with confident efficiency, even if the technique of repeatedly fading to black disrupts the narrative flow and endows proceedings with a distractingly choppy, sometimes aimless feel. A guitar-dominated score by Camilo Montilla and Oriol Caro, adds a slightly syrupy touch to a movie which has its share of hokey, corny moments but has sufficient charm, largely thanks to Ocampo, to ensure it never tiptoes into dangerously mawkish, over-sentimental terrain.

Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival
Production companies: El Bus Prods.
Cast: Hernán Mauricio Ocampo, Nolberto Sánchez, Genaro Aristizábal, Hernán Méndez, Natalia Cuellar
Director: Carlos César Arbeláez
Screenwriter: Carlos César Arbeláez
Producer: Juan Pablo Tamayo
Director of photography: Oscar Jiménez
Production designer: Gonzalo Martinez
Music: Camilo Montilla, Oriol Caro
Costume designer: Mabel Amaya
Editors: Felipe Aljure, Andrés Durán
Sales: UMedia, France
No rating, 93 minutes