‘The Silence of the River’ (‘El Silencio del Rio’): Cartagena Review

El Silencio del rio The Silence of the River Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Habanero Films

El Silencio del rio The Silence of the River Still - H 2015

A beautiful and bleak film that suggests its first-time director is one to watch

This take on a young man’s struggle with his country’s legacy of violence took best Colombian picture at the recent Cartagena festival

A slow-burning, terrifically melancholy drama set in a remote mountain region of Colombia, Carlos Trivino Mamby’s ambitious debut is an impressively weighty, sometimes overly grandiose meditation on the effects of violence on the nation. The events of The Silence of the River play out against a backdrop of visual majesty, opening up haunted, fearful lives which have quietly been ruined and then forgotten; the magnificent, uncaring natural backdrops to those lives sometimes threaten to distract the viewer from the human-scale effects of the violence. Nonetheless, this is ambitious, large-scale film-making which deserves festival exposure at the least.

River intertwines two narratives, one set -- initially confusingly -- ever so slightly ahead of the other. The first belongs to 12 year-old Anselmo (Jhonny Forero, credited under this spelling), who lives with his mother and grandfather, his father having been killed. Asked by his mother to deliver a package, Anselmo pauses to swim in the wide, fast-flowing river which courses forcefully through both the region and the movie, and finds himself almost bumping against a floating corpse. Piqued by a curiosity presumably driven by his father’s unexplained disappearance, Anselmo decides to follow the corpse downriver in the hope of finding some answers. Movingly, he will later adopt and protect the corpse, as though it were indeed his father.

The second story deals with understandably gloomy mustached farmer and heavy drinker Epifanio (Hernan Mendez), struggling to carry on his normal life though the odds are heavily stacked against him. The area is cut off from the world, under the control of the post FARC paramilitary organizations which still terrorize huge swathes of rural Colombia (none of this is explained in the film, which pretty much sidesteps direct references to the political detail) and who move in to forcefully expropriate the land, no questions asked.

Following the rains, Epifanio struggles desperately to pull out a cow symbolically stranded in the mud; he visits neighboring farmsteads, discovering that their owners have already abandoned the area under the threat of the imminent arrival of the guns. But along with friend Alcides (Alberto Cardeno), the heroic but foolhardy Epifanio decides to stay and confront them: “the only good land, he intones, is that in which one was born”.

As the title implies, in this film what matters most is the fast-flowing river, which in a region without roads brings the bad news and carries away the good. It’s a rich metaphor for an area of the world where history is never allowed to settle but which is shot through with an unstoppable flow of human violence which carries everything before it. The lengthy, richly colored and carefully-composed mountain and sky shots and the dark, dingy interiors suggest that such weighty thoughts are never far from Treviño’s mind. It would all be unbearably pessimistic were it not for the quiet redemption which comes with the film’s final frames.

In River, such great themes translate less into compelling drama -- the film is slow, character work sketchy - than into compelling mood work. There’s the sense that we are witnessing the unfolding of an ancient, primal tragedy -- that this is what the world will look like in the last days before the man-made apocalypse.

Practically all the audience identification work falls on the slim shoulders of the wide-eyed, perpetually busy Forero, dwarfed by the landscape and by immense mysteries and silences. He does fine, particularly since he himself is practically silent throughout. Like Anselmo, we struggle to make sense of what the we are seeing, often at a safe distance.

But during a final act which is dramatically somewhat busier than what’s gone before, Anselmo is able for the first time to take some sort of control. The effect is truly cathartic, for Anselmo and for the audience alike, and suggests the flickering hope that it’s with this new generation that Colombia’s violence will finally end.

Production companies: Igolai Producciones, Promenades Films, Seacuatico
Cast: Jhonny Forero, Hernan Mendez, Victoria Hernández, Alberto Cardeno
Director, screenwriter: Carlos Trivino Mamby
Producer: Gustavo Pazmin Perea
Director of photography: Alejandro Vallejo
Production designers: Felipe Sanclemente, Martin Montes
Editor: Fernando Epstein
Composer: Juan Padilla
Sales: Habanero Films

No rating, 79 minutes