'Fistful of Dirt': Film Review | Telluride 2018

Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
Eloquent lament for a lost childhood.

Chilean-born director Sebastian Silva has constructed a fable that highlights the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.

One of the distinctions of this year’s Telluride Film Festival was the discovery of some bright young actors, including Richie Merritt of White Boy Rick and Oleg Ivenko of The White Crow. Add to that list Julio Gaston Ramos, the 10-year-old star of Sebastian Silva’s poignant and adventurous new film, Fistful of Dirt. Silva discovered Ramos in Puerto Rico, and this utterly honest and engaging young actor holds the entire movie on his shoulders.

Silva has made the first dramatic feature to highlight the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria just one year ago. Yet he has explained that the project actually had its roots years ago when he thought of making a mermaid movie in Poland. That project never came to fruition, but Silva and co-writer Pedro Peirano decided to take a few of their ideas from that abortive fantasy script and inject them into a timely story that captures the agony of last year’s devastation in a metaphorical but still affecting tale.

Silva filmed just two months after the hurricane hit, and although it makes no overt political statement, it takes us into a world suffused with a sense of loss. It begins in bright sunlight, as Yei (Ramos) walks along the water, past downed palm trees and debris everywhere. Yet he tries to go on about his business, capturing crabs along the beach and helping a local hustler, Alicio (Modesto Lacen), search for gasoline that can keep the generators working. Yei’s mother seems to be suffering from emphysema or another lung ailment, and she desperately needs oxygen that is in short supply. Although the film never makes this explicit, it seems that Yei’s father and other family members were killed in the hurricane, and the boy and his mother must depend on other townspeople who are not exactly welcoming. 

Although the pic demonstrates compassion for the victims of the cataclysm, it is not a piece of social realism. This becomes clear when Yei returns to the waterfront and confronts a strange sea creature desperate for food. Although the movie may have had its roots in mermaid mythology, it cannot help but stir memories of last year’s Oscar winner, The Shape of Water, which also focused on an aquatic monster oozing its way into the lives of the film’s characters. The creature in Fistful of Dirt seems to be a stand-in for all the people who perished in the hurricane.

Although the underwater ending (strangely reminiscent of the conclusion of Shape of Water) doesn’t completely satisfy, the film has moments of enchantment, thanks to the fine work of the director and his cinematographer, Alexis Zabe. Silva has had an intriguingly eclectic career, from his Chilean pic The Maid to his underrated and unsettling New York-based drama, Nasty Baby. One of the key elements adding to this new film’s magical atmosphere is the lyrical score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (who also composed the music for another Telluride movie, Boy Erased). But the film would not have the same impact without the commanding lead performance. Thanks to Ramos’s affecting work, Fistful of Dirt sticks in the memory.

Production company: Let It Play
Cast: Julio Gaston Ramos, Modesto Lacen, Dolores Pedro, Hilda Juana Pizarro, Michel Nono
Director: Sebastian Silva
Screenwriters: Sebastian Silva, Pedro Peirano
Producers: Alex A. Ginzburg, Tim Harms, Tony Lee
Director of photography: Alexis Zabe
Production designer: Angel Flores Mangual
Costume designer: Amarys Annexy Labult
Editor: Sofia Subercaseaux
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

91 minutes