Phil on Film Index

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Review - Alamar

In terms of incident, not a great deal happens in Alamar, and it runs for little over 70 minutes, but this is still one of the best films of the year. The secret of its success lies in its simplicity, and in director Pedro González-Rubio's infectious sense of fascination in both his subjects and the world they inhabit. The film is a semi-fictional narrative built around a real relationship, and González-Rubio shows little interest in maintaining the boundaries between documentary reality and a filmmaker's artifice, as he strives for a greater sense of truth through the interactions between a man and his son. Alamar is bookended by two brief scenes in Italy, but its prime location – and the place in which it comes to vivid life – is Banco Chinchorro, an idyllic coral reef in Mexico.

This is where Jorge Machado will take his young son Natan for a final fishing trip together, before the boy leaves to live in Italy with his mother Roberta. The relationships in the film are real, but the story González-Rubio has woven around them – the breakdown of Jorge and Roberta's relationship, and the separation of Jorge from his son – is not. This scripted portion of the film does give it a sense of narrative shape, however, and it adds a melancholy undertone to the picture, with Jorge and Natan knowing that they will soon have to leave this beautiful place, and they need to make every moment they spend together count.

Not that dramatic urgency is at the forefront of the director's thoughts. For much of Alamar, González-Rubio's camera is simply an attentive observer as Jorge teaches Natan the skills and traditions that have been handed down to him through the generations. We see Natan nervously attempt to swim with a snorkel for the first time, learn how to bait a hook and then catch his first fish. Back on land, the pair de-scale and gut their catch, and all the time Jorge is a patient and generous teacher while Natan is an ever-curious student. The naturalness of their emotional connection gives the film its heart, and González-Rubio allows us to experience their developing bond through the activities they perform together. Many scenes in Alamar unfold in silence, as the two quietly work side by side, with both father and son seeming to be completely comfortable in front of the camera and unaware of González-Rubio's presence.

The director imposes a rhythm on his film that mirrors the steady pace of life in the community Jorge is part of, although the quiet nature of the film is occasionally disrupted by the frantic action of their fishing expeditions. González-Rubio is a filmmaker as keenly aware of Jorge and Natan's environment as he is of the pair themselves, and he sometimes cuts away to view a cockroach crawling through their cabin, or a crocodile who sits a few yards away as they clean their boat. The film is also full of delightfully serendipitous incidents, with the most notable being the sudden appearance of white egret that wanders into their hut one day in search of food, and briefly becomes a supporting character in the film. That sense of unexpected moments being caught on film, of González-Rubio capturing lightning in a bottle, gives Alamar a wonderfully vibrant sense of life. This is also one of the most beautiful films I've seen this year, with González-Rubio's crystal-clear cinematography adding a luminous texture to every shot.

The most remarkable thing about Alamar is how real it feels, despite the fictional story that the director has developed for his protagonists. In a moving sequence towards the end, Natan weeps when he realises that his time with his father is coming to an end, and in just over an hour, González-Rubio has absorbed us so fully into his story, and involved us so completely in his characters, that we are deeply touched by this scene of farewell. Before they separate, Jorge takes Natan diving one more time, and the boy who earlier took to the water so anxiously and tentatively now swims confidently alongside his father. During their time together, the boy has become a man. He has learned things and shared experiences that he will remember forever, even if Alamar suggests how fleeting such moments of happiness can be with its striking final image.

Read my interview with
Pedro González-Rubio here.