'Eldorado XXI': Berlin Review

Courtesy of O Som e a FĂșria, Shellac Sud 2016
Hard labor yields scatterings of precious material.

Portuguese documentarist Salome Lamas' portrait of a Peruvian gold mine and its environs premiered at the Forum in the German festival.

A demanding and sometimes grueling example of austere documentary cinema, Salome Lamas' Eldorado XXI chronicles the realities of poverty-line labor in the high Andes of Peru. The Portuguese-French co-production takes an unblinking look at landscapes of bleak beauty and industrial vistas of hellish devastation. Among all the films bowing in this year's edgy Forum parallel-section of the Berlinale, this uncompromising follow-up to Lamas' well-received No Man's Land will be among those obtaining the most widespread festival play over the coming months, as it's tailor-made for the more rarified altitudes of the contemporary cinephile scene. 

Audiences may respond less warmly than critics, however, especially during the fifty-minute shot which occupies the screen up until the one-hour mark. After a brief introduction during which Lamas and her cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga deliver spectacular images of this remote, forbiddingly chilly-looking locale, the marathon begins. The camera never moves, observing hundreds of miners as they file quietly through the shot, illuminating the blackness only with the lights of their helmets. The intention is to replicate the sheer monotony of these workers' daily grind, a circular slog of claustrophobic repetition with minor variations.

But while we may be numbed by the visuals during this testingly protracted sequence, the soundtrack (courtesy of Miguel Martins) does its best to keep us awake: we hear moving testimonies from those who work in or around the mine, interspersed with cheerily — sometime cheesily — upbeat extracts from the mine's own radio station, complete with tinny jingles and reports of various industrial mishaps. The impression is given that the whole of the picture's remaining running-time may be taken up in such a manner, but at the mid-point of Eldorado XXI's two hours the scene abruptly shifts to a retina-searingly bright exterior shot of snowy mountainsides.

What follows is a relatively conventional hour that provides an informative and engagingly varied panorama of life in and around 'La Rinconada', culminating in a noisy and colorful religious celebration that finally brings the whole community together in front of Arteaga's lens. Having shot Berlinale 2015 prize-winner Ixcanul Volcano in the damply fecund wilds of Guatemala, the cinematographer now brings his astute eye to a very different mountainous region of Latin America, where blocky habitations cling to hillsides like ice-grey outcrops of nature.

It's frustrating, then, that Lamas and her editor Telmo Churro (a frequent collaborator of her critically-adored countryman Miguel Gomes) should be so sparing with Arteaga's obvious talents — there's nothing wrong with 55-minute shots per se, but the one they've selected here doesn't boast sufficient visual interest to sustain their audacious artistic gambit. The shot would probably be twice as effective at half the length, but then again Lamas is probably aware that duration is often regarded as a praiseworthy quality in and of itself these days, when a taxingly slow tackling of any serious socioeconomic phenomenon is automatically elevated to a higher artistic echelon.

When Lamas breaks away from the Wang Bing/Lav Diaz template, however, she often strikes a rich vein of material — a squabbly union meeting in a hilltop snowstorm; insect-like workers breaking rocks on vertiginous slopes with crude hammers and chisels; a chatty convocation of proletarian ladies whose awareness of the world beyond their doorstep proves unexpectedly erudite ("Hernando de Soto, a global economist, says..."). Taken in toto, Eldorado XXI is a palpably well-intentioned exercise in the extension of sympathy and the raising of awareness. It's just a shame that its esthetic extremities will end up restricting its potential reach: Lamas has constructed an exquisite cinematic sermon, one likely to accumulate prizes aplenty. But at the moment it sounds very much like she's preaching to the choir.

Production companies: O Som ea Furia, Shellac Sud
Director / Screenwriter: Salome Lamas
Producers: Luis Urbano, Sandro Aguilar, Thomas Ordonneau
Cinematographer: Luis Armando Arteaga
Editor: Telmo Churro
Composers: Joao Lobo, Norberto Lobo
Sound design: Miguel Martins
Sales: Shellac, Marseille

No Rating, 122 minutes