'The Senses' ('Los Sentidos'): Film Review

Education is everything.

Argentinian Marcelo Burd tackles major themes in a deceptively small-scale documentary about a school in a remote mountain pueblo.

A kind of rural Argentinian equivalent to Lauren Cantet’s The Class, Marcelo Burd’s affecting documentary The Senses is the result of the director’s three-month trip to record events at a school in a remote mountain village in northwestern Argentina. Tracking the day-to-day of the school’s two-person husband-and-wife teaching team, their young pupils, and their parents, it is a quiet, touching film about unrewarded heroism in adverse conditions, shot through with an attractive mix of celebration and melancholy. Tackling with subtlety resonant contemporary themes that are more than simply local, Senses merits festival interest beyond Latin America, where it has picked up several awards.

From the start Olacapato, the highest pueblo in the country, is established as a remote location. Clouds of dust drift across a mountain landscape as inside one of the unpainted brick buildings, middle-aged Salomon Ordonez tries to teach a couple of youngsters how to write stories: “Tell somebody something that happened and then add details that aren’t true.” As a strategy for writing fiction, this could hardly be bettered, and it rapidly emerges that Salomon is a natural, inspirational teacher. (One of Senses’ feelgood messages is that good teaching can still occur in the unlikeliest of places, far from any internet connection, as long as the raw human material is right.)

One thread running through the doc is Salomon’s class’ attempts to create rockets from soda bottles — which the children manage to do in a later scene of real catharsis and euphoria — and thus learn the rudiments of Newtonian physics. But they are also, here in the middle of nowhere, busy playing chess and reading Jules Verne, learning how to negotiate and making radio programs, a vibrant challenge to the social inertia which threatens to take over in rural areas.

The heroic struggles of Salomon and his wife, Victoria, are set against a backdrop of harsh economic realities, and though Olacapato is not a totally impoverished community, it is poor, and indeed poorer than it once was. Stunning transition shots — of which there are a few too many over the film’s second half — repeatedly position it as an isolated place which, as the locals repeatedly point out, has largely been abandoned now that the train which once stopped there no longer does so. The final, touching shot has kids skipping along train lines which are unlikely ever again to be used for what they were intended.

There’s a strong political subtext to Senses. The train brought the men who used to work at a company, never named, which exploited the land before disappearing. This happened throughout so much of Latin America, and though what the company actually did is never made explicit, its loss has clearly affected Olacapato, where there seem to be more women than men, and more mothers than fathers. A somewhat fragmentary picture emerges of a community not quite at ease with itself, one that is a little too nostalgic for times past and understandably uncertain about its future.

Burd’s treatment of all this is cool and detached, with everything observed and allowed to play out at its own pace, zero camera movement, and no voiceover, giving the whole project a limpid, pure feel. Images are framed with a keen eye on visual composition, while conversations are recorded and feel unstaged and intimate, since Burd apparently just asked the townspeople to talk about whatever they wanted to and then edited.

Particularly striking are the quiet, worried exchanges between Salomon and Victoria, secular saints both who, we later learn, have children of their own, living away from home. It’s a situation which tinges the final scenes with a further note of melancholy, as Salomon has to make a tough decision. In line with the generally austere treatment, there is no score, but the soundwork is excellent.

Production company: Cepa Audiovisual
Cast: Salomon Ordonez, Victoria Ramos, Sixta Casimiro, Florinda Nieva, Rosa Choque
Director, screenwriter: Marcelo Burd
Producers: Felicitas Raffo, Aníbal Garisto, Marcelo Burd
Executive producer:
Director of photography: Diego Gachssin
Production Designer: Aníbal Garisto
Costume designer:
Editor: Valeria Racioppi
Sales: Cepa Audiovisual

75 minutes