'Land of Ashes' ('Ceniza Negra'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Smachleen Gutierrez in 'Land of Ashes.'
A beautiful, just-so story.

Writer-director Sofia Quiros Ubeda returns to the characters and setting of her short 'Selva' for her first feature film, a fable about a young girl living on the edge between childhood and maturity, life and death.

Argentinian Costa Rican writer-director Sofia Quiros Ubeda makes her feature debut with Land of Ashes (Ceniza Negra), a stylish, animistic coming-of-age story that extends the milieu and characters featured in her short Selva, which, like Ashes, premiered in Cannes Critics' Week in 2017. Starring Ubeda's wide-eyed discovery Smachleen Gutierrez as an alert, precocious 13-year-old coping with bereavement and the onset of adulthood (a reprise of the role she played in Selva), this is a small, intimate work that's daintily made but possibly not quite brassy and flashy enough to break out far beyond the festival circuit. At least on the evidence presented here, Ubeda clearly has a sharp eye, storytelling skills and a knack with coaxing performances from nonprofessionals that bodes very well for the future.  

Although the film is shot, per press notes, on the Costa Rican coast, there's no mention about where the story is taking place, but native Spanish speakers will probably clock the Central American accents. Clearly, judging by the light clothing and lush vegetation all around, Selva (Gutierrez ) and her Tata, or grandfather (Humberto Samuels), live somewhere not far from the equator along with Elena (Hortensia Smith), a slightly feral, often drunken woman only a little younger than Tata whose relationship to the family is a bit ambiguous. She might be Tata's special lady friend, a relative or a servant, but she and Selva have an often combative relationship, one that sometimes dissolves into insults and name calling. ("Slut!" "Bitch!" "Old hag!" "Nosy girl!" represent some of the more printable epithets.)

Sometimes the two of them are loving and affectionate, like when Selva helps Elena to bed when she's drunk, or they dance together along with Tata to old video footage of belly dancers, or by themselves at a local discothèque. At other times, Selva spits in Elena's food, and gets especially cross if she finds out the old woman has been using her stuff, like a green bead bracelet Selva inherited from her dead mother. Presumably, Selva's late mother is the woman with long braids she sometimes hangs out with around the forest, helping to make little graves for dead animals, smiling and mirroring Selva's movements, a ghost that only Selva seems to see. Meanwhile, Tata is quite convinced he has a little flock of goats that only he can see.

The suggestion that the boundary between the living and the dead is highly porous but not something to be feared or dreaded continues throughout. What's nice is the relaxed naturalism of it all, with Selva equally at home among snakes and her dead mom's spirit as she is with her girlfriends at school, with whom she practices wet kisses on the hand, as practice for snogging boys. There is actually a cute boy at school that Selva has taken a shine to, but like 13-year-olds all over the world they're awkward with each other and he sometimes ignores her if his friends are around. Her world mostly revolves around Tata and Elena, which makes it upsetting when both of them start to slip away from her.

DP Francisca Saez Agurto and Ubeda often place the characters, especially Selva, low down in the frame in long shots so that the people seem part of a seamless whole with the teeming, twittering natural landscape, a realm full of life and death, ebbing and flowing like sea at the beach. Shadows of the dead appear out of nowhere and chat to the shadows of the living, while the sound of animals seems to signify that another soul has made the transmigration from one species to another. Throughout, the sound design takes creative opportunities to enhance this magical-realist realm, but Ubeda also deploys restraint so that these supernatural, primitivist-cum-New Agey elements never seem mannered or cloying. Plus, hyper-photogenic star Gutierrez performs with such intense, lively conviction that she helps sell the package, which is some feat for a 13-year-old kid.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Production: A Sputnik Films production in co-production Murillo Cine, La Post Producciones, Promenades Films in association with Alta Definicion Argentina, Yagan Films, Ingenio Digital, Faro Digital, Christian Herrera Herrera, Bora Films
Cast: Smachleen Gutierrez, Humberto Samuels, Hortensia Smith, Keha Brown
Director-screenwriter: Sofia Quiros Ubeda
Producer: Mariana Murillo
Co-producers: Mariana Murillo, Sofia Quiros Ubeda, Cecilia Salim, Millaray Cortes, Matias Echeverria, Samuel Chauvin, Rodolfo Quiros, Esteban Zabala
Director of photography: Francisca Saez Agurto
Production designer: Carolina Lett
Editor: Ariel Escalante
Music: Wissam Hojeij
Casting: Florencia Rovlich
Sales: Totem

No rating; 82 minutes