Wide-open 'Alamar' alternates between speed and stillness.

Alamar Re-opens SFFS Screen

Max Goldberg July 30, 2010

Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar is gorgeous—claiming otherwise would be like arguing against sunsets—but its beauty is of many different parts, and I suspect each viewer will find his or her own way through its open narrative. After several sell-out showings at last May’s San Francisco International Film Festival, it’s now returning for an encore week at the Sundance Kabuki. The film’s plot is barely there: A young boy, Natan, spends a stretch of days with his distant father and grandfather, fishermen both, as they live and work in the Gulf of Mexico’s sparkling azure near the Banco Chinchorro reef.

It’s an environment that rewards the HD camera’s remarkable appetite for color and movement, but González-Rubio wields the technology lightly. Seeing such a high-end image rocking in a little motorboat is a delight—image and action are similarly self-sufficient, subject to the sea. Everything in Alamar abides this swaying motion, from the hammocks in which Natan sleeps to the bobbing reggae music on a transistor radio to the actual structuring of the film’s scenes, alternating regularly between full landscapes and intimate detail, speed and stillness.

The clarity of sound and image is not an end in itself, but rather reflects the intrinsic goodness of the father-son bond. Natan and his father Jorge’s intimate days together are all the more poignant for being numbered. In a brief prologue co-narrated by Natan’s amicably separated mother and father, we learn that boy was born of an impossible love: Jorge lives at sea, while his mother, the full-time parent, is an Italian city dweller. She prepares Natan for his patrimonial trip at the outset, and a few short scenes later the boy is immersed, being raised as he would by his father. Their Edenic experience of fulfillment and impermanence links Natan’s coming-of-age with the story of his conception—and perhaps also with our own aesthetic surrender in the darkened theater.

The full resonance of González-Rubio’s cinematography is that the sensory details by which we experience Alamar will also provide the raw material for Natan’s subsequent memories of his father. The many close-ups of hands and feet emphasize the importance of touch to the film’s quiet narration, placing it in line with any number of recollections of childhood. González-Rubio consistently intuits the child’s hovering consciousness by curiously fixing the camera upon how things are done: the step-by-step long shots of the two adults diving for shellfish, hacking them apart, weighing them for a nearby buyer. The observation of a practical task, like cleaning the underside of the boat, easily slides into rapt contemplation of abstract streaks of sand and mud. It runs the other way too: González-Rubio’s camera adores Jorge for his long limbs and muscular back, certainly, but also for the practical knowledge he embodies—the easy movements docking a boat or untangling a line that are being imprinted upon Natan as they are the camera. And even though Jorge is a nearly fantastic heroic vision of fatherhood, he’s still learning. At one point, the grandfather has to demonstrate how to reel a long barracuda with quick hands. We watch the fish snake through the water and then, with a tug, come thrashing onto the boat—at which point the cheery grandfather all but shouts at González-Rubio, “Move!”

There are several such instances of matter-of-fact reflexivity in which the door between documentary and fiction swings freely open. There’s the brief passage González-Rubio dedicates to an older fisher, for instance, who commandeers the camera as a medium for a love letter, or the moment when Natan, recalling the elements of his trip near the end of the film, brightly adds, “The camera,” and then studies González-Rubio’s machine to make a drawing. What else has González-Rubio been doing but sketching his observations and in the editing room recalling the highlights of the trip?

Although Alamars straddling of fiction and documentary is voguish, the film’s ethnographic-poetic style harks back at least as far as Nanook of the North (1922). Putting aside the climate differential between the two films, consider the way Robert Flaherty’s seminal portrait is also set in a preindustrial, almost timeless space, seizes upon hunting rituals, “documents” the passing of knowledge from father to son in both work and play, and episodically rhapsodizes about living on the land. But González-Rubio’s idyllic escape is far more modest—less freighted with the work of signification, it leaves more room for interplay and fortuity. It says something about Alamar’s tranquility that a dramatic centerpiece comes in the form of a white egret’s visitation. Jorge teaches Natan the elegant bird’s Latin name and then how to gain its confidence. These tender images have the spontaneous intimacy of home movies and, in Alamar, dissolve the mythologizing impulse of ethnography. When the elder Nestor says fishing takes “patience and luck,” he might well be describing González-Rubio’s filmmaking ethos as well.