A beguiling cross between fiction and non-fiction, Alamar regards the relationship three Mexican males have with the sea. Sparkling like a precious found object (in what are too often murky cinematic waters), this minimalist hybrid celebrates the elemental bond between humankind and nature and between fathers and sons. Given its mostly implied ecological message, it's easy to see why the movie was popular at festivals; owing to its quiet, contemplative quality, it's equally easy to predict it won't attract mid-summer throngs to Film Forum.
Part nature study, part sociological experiment, Alamar invites exaggeration and poetic license due to its serene, ephemeral beauty, and also because director and cinematographer Pedro González-Rubio, in his first feature, doesn't provide any detailed contextual guidance. His aim is to shepherd us "to the sea" and reveal one vanishing ecosystem and corresponding way of life.
Natan is a 5 year old boy whose Mexican father, Jorge, and Italian mother, Roberta, have separated after three years together. He lives with his mother in Rome, but it's decided he will spend time in Jorge's native environment, on Mexico's largest coral reef, Banco Chinchorro in the Caribbean. Jorge, a wiry, long-haired man of Mayan descent (a Hispanic Lord Greystoke?), takes Natan to this remote location where they're met by Matraca, an older gentleman who may be Jorge's father and Natan's grandfather. During Natan's visit, which is of untold duration, the three live in a plywood hut that sits on stilts above the turquoise waters near the reef, a line of scruffy mangroves visible in the distance.
The sea is omnipresent and Natan's sojourn is presented as a series of idyllic, fleeting vignettes all intimately linked to its ebb and flow. Early on, we watch the two adults plunge into the water and spearfish while the boy occupies himself in Matraca's utilitarian boat. After cleaning the lobsters and fish they catch, they take them to a larger vessel to be weighed and sold. Jorge teaches Natan how to snorkel; they feed fish guts to frigate birds and crocodiles lurking in the water beneath the hut. They hand-feed bugs to an egret named Blanquita who, although wild, qualifies as a pet.
On the open water, they catch barracuda and other large fish using simple lines and hooks (no poles or nets here). One day, they go to a beach where local fishermen congregate to clean their boats. From our vantage point, Natan comes closest to peril during that outing, forcing Matraca to warn with a cackle, "Watch out for the crocodile." Thankfully, Natan avoids being eaten. Throughout, Jorge keeps a watchful eye, gently imparting practical wisdom to his son, much as Matraca appears to be mentoring Jorge. How much time passes is unclear. We hear a few conversations that rise above everyday. For example, Matraca declares that "fishing is about luck and patience," an observation that applies to the movie itself.
While never straining to unearth meaning, González-Rubio refrains from turning Alamar into a travelogue or slide show. He doesn't romanticize the natural environment with this camera or overindulge in picturesque shots of the surroundings in lieu of a more eventful narrative or more detailed information about his human subjects. He's chosen to present things in a dispassionate way that serves the ecological message he broaches only at the end in declarative title cards referencing the fragile condition of Banco Chinchorro, which is threatened by tourism and growing urbanization.
His sly blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking does leave you wanting to know more about the relationship between Jorge and Roberta. (Where did they meet? Where was Natan born?) More crucially, are Jorge and Matraca father and son? (They don't look alike at all.) Although he's interested in celebrating and preserving a way of life, González-Rubio has no time for personalities and psychology. Maybe he's saying that individual character traits are neutralized by the demands of being a fisherman and relying on the sea for virtually everything. Perhaps the lesson of Alamar is that human relationships are too ambiguous and malleable, whereas the relationship between man and nature is more often exact and exacting.
Undeniably, Alamar is about one boy's dual reality. Capturing his experience on film, much like putting messages into a bottle and launching it into the world as Natan does toward the end before his return to civilization, is a precarious enterprise. It's Natan's good fortune to have a father from one place on earth, hence one background, and a mother from a very different set of circumstances. It's our good fortune to catch glimpses of both.
Distributor: Film Movement
Cast: Jorge Machado, Roberta Palombini, Natan Machado Palombini and Nestór Marín "Matraca"
Director/Screenwriter: Pedro González-Rubio
Producers: Jaime Romandia and Pedro González-Rubio
Genre: Documentary/Drama; Spanish and Italian-language; subtitled
Running time: 73 min.
Release date: July 14 NY