Monte adentro: Cartagena Review

As slow-moving and sure of step as the mules that are its subject, ‘Monte adentro’ saves its real kick for its second half.

A homage to the mule-driving life, on the verge of extinction in rural Colombia.

The plight of Colombian mule drivers is perhaps not uppermost in the thoughts of many folk, but Monte adentro fills the gap perfectly adequately. Made with care and attention, the film is a slow-moving, largely wordless study of the life of one of the last men in the mountainous province of  Caldas in western central Colombia to be using mules as a mode of transport. Perhaps of more value as a social document than as a viewing experience, the film's attention to telling detail does allow it to transcend its specifics and become, for the attentive viewer, a film about how change inevitably leaves poverty in its wake. Documentary festivals and sidebars with a Latin American focus are the film’s likeliest destination.   

Novier and Alonso, known locally as the Gypsies, are the sons of a mother who explains that she married into a family of mule drivers: of her two sons, Alonso went to live in the city while Novier left school at fourteen to become the muleteer he is today -- the last of a kind in a field where automated transportation has largely taken over.   

The film shuttles between their two lives, the one in the country – in the family home, in bad need of repair -- and the other in the city. Alonso is a cobbler, dealing with people's feet in much the same way as his brother has to deal with the mules' hooves. It's a precarious existence -- one scene has him delivering shoes to someone's home in the early morning, and struggling to get paid. His background, it is suggested, has not given him the skills he needs for the modern world, and city life, far from being the promised paradise, may be even tougher than what he left behind.   

Novier’s sections deal with the day to day of a mule driver's tedious, hard-bitten existence: washing the animals, loading and unloading them, and washing them. At no point does either brother directly address either an interviewer or a camera -- they are who they are, taciturn country men of the kind from who the cowboy tradition derives. But there is the sense that some inside view of their lives might have provided more insight beyond what first time director Nicolas Macario Alonso’s artistry is able to provide alone.   

Macario Alonso is respectful and painstaking in his attempts not to sentimentalize the story, the men, or the mules for the sake of making the subject more easily digestible, although he has not resisted the urge for an occasional long shot of the stunning local mountain scenery. The downside is that the grinding repetitiveness of the mens' lives sometimes becomes a grinding repetitiveness in the film itself.   

Loosely speaking, the film’s first part is descriptive, its second narrative, with the brothers coming together for a lengthy sequence for a tough task -- delivering some furniture to the remote mountainside home of a local landowner. If there was ever any doubt that mule driving could be nail-biting, this tense twenty or so minutes settles it. It’s as though the film has finally discovered its narrative, and it is very different from what has come before: where there was silence, there are now words, where there were impressions, there is now real drama. to the extent that viewers at the Cartagena screening caught audibly groaned when a table leg breaks. Tellingly, the men seem almost to become mules themselves.   This part of the film also provides its most quotable line, one which seems to have layers of meaning: "Furniture suffers while it's on a mule's back," complains Novier, who in his final appearance is interestingly wearing a Calvin Klein baseball cap. "God knows that.”   

The Spanish title, roughly translatable as "Into the Hills", has been retained.   

Production: Flor de Producciones, Senal Colombia
Director, screenwriter: Nicolas Macario Alonso
Producers: Heike Maria Fischer, Nicolas Macario Alonso
Director Of Photography: Mauricio Vidal
Editor: Felipe Guerrero
Music: Alejandro Ramírez Rojas
Sound: Miller Castro, Jose R. Jaramillo, Lena Esquenazi
Sales: Flor De Producciones
No Rating, 79 Minutes