'Piedra sola': Film Review | Rotterdam 2020

International Film Festival Rotterdam
Ricardo Fidel Tolaba in 'Piedra sola.'
A transcendent but frustrating cinematic experience.

Alejandro Telemaco Tarraf's feature debut, shot in rural Argentina, bowed in the main competition at the Dutch showcase.

There are astonishing sequences of sensory splendor in Alejandro Telemaco Tarraf's Piedra sola, ones that recall and even sometimes rival the work of such obvious forebears as Carlos Reygadas, Terrence Malick and Lisandro Alonso. But sublime images and overwhelming sound design are not always enough to sustain even a bare minimum feature-film running time, restricting the 71-minute picture's likely prospects to the festival circuit after its Rotterdam-competition world premiere.

A stark, fable-like, rural affair of the type that many festivals evidently crave, it blends fictional elements into a predominantly anthropological and ethnographic approach. Co-produced with Mexico, Qatar and the U.K., Piedra sola (also referred to as Lonely Rock in the Rotterdam catalog) unfolds in the majestic, sparsely populated highlands of northern Argentina. Llama herding is the main profession in these rugged parts, as we observe via the arduous travails of 40ish family man Fidel: Ricardo Fidel Tolaba, like all the members of the non-pro cast, plays himself. The local herds are being preyed upon by an unseen puma: "So many years and we have not even caught a glimpse of it," one of the farmers sighs at a meeting.

The bloodthirsty feline may indeed be of supernatural aspect, but in the case of the ancient culture depicted and quietly celebrated here, the boundary between the natural and supernatural is marginal or perhaps even nonexistent. Telémaco Tarraf, cinematographer Alberto Balazs and sound designer Leonardo Cauteruccio observe and record the people's working lives and their rituals with intense attention and evident respect, building a vivid portrait of an inaccessibly remote, seldom-seen environment.

They set out their stall via a wordless six-minute opening sequence, presented via sequences that transition via graceful dissolves. A white horse whose front legs have been bound together awkwardly navigates a rubbly landscape; dusk declines into darkness; thunder rumbles menacingly in the skies above, presaging a downpour. Nodding squarely toward the prologue of Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux, this is only the first of at least half a dozen such set pieces which cry out to be savored on the biggest of screens. They range in scope from the intimate (a ceremony involving coca leaves, shown in sensual close-up) to the elementally spectacular (a sky full of rain clouds.)

They show off Tarraf's exquisite eye and ear, as well as functioning as a kind of extended showreel, not only for feature-debutant DP Balasz but also for the stunning capacities of the RED Epic MX 5K camera, here fitted with an anamorphic lens. Stringing these highlights together into a compelling narrative is another matter: Tarraf's screenplay, co-written with Lucas Distéfano, takes an unexpected left-field turn into more nightmarish territory some 52 minutes in, when Fidel discovers the corpse of a days-old llama in a desolate valley. He encounters a quartet of strangers carrying a heavy wooden platform that bears the effigy of a man on horseback, and is compelled to help them lug the burden to the top of a nearby mountain where it will be ceremonially burned.

The meaning of this evidently symbolic interlude remains as obscure to the viewer as it does to the hapless Fidel. And when the film abruptly concludes at the 67-minute mark (four minutes of credits follow the inevitable cut to black), Tarraf and company have veered from pathos into bathos. There is, undeniably, talent aplenty here. But Tarraf, whose previous directorial outings, Vuelos (2009) and El valle interior (2014), ran just nine and 16 minutes apiece, certainly wouldn't be the first filmmaking artist who struggled to stretch his distinctive vision to the larger canvas.

Production companies: Viento Cine, Balazstarraf
Cast: Ricardo Fidel Tolaba, Lucia Bautista, Maykol Tolaba, Ruben Tolaba, Rosa Ramos
Director-editor: Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf
Screenwriters: Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf, Lucas Distéfano
Producers: Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf, Alberto Balazs
Cinematographer: Alberto Balazs
Production designers: Eva Knutsdotter Vikstrom, Julia Diaz Lopez
Composer: Eva Knutsdotter Vikstrom
Sound: Leonardo Cauteruccio
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (competition)
Sales: Viento Cine, Buenos Aires

In Spanish and Quechua

71 minutes