El Gran Movimiento (2021)
Beyond the imposing natural landscapes and scattered suburbs lies a chrome reflection, an amalgamation of concrete surfaces and metallic drones that draws wandering souls through the sheer magnetism of its hypnotic features. These towering constructions and compressed pathways might not seem immediately appealing, but they hold an essential asset that no other settlement does: the promise of something better.
No matter how truthful that latter idealization is, urban centers in Latin America have always been structured and fueled by the hopes and dreams of those that flock to them in search of opportunities. Since they were established by colonizing powers more than five centuries ago, cities have always represented a place of abundance and lawlessness, a chaotic environment where everyone is out on their own, existing in a frantic rhythm that only scales upwards, without ever reaching a climax.
Like the opening minutes of Bolivian filmmaker Kiro Russo’s El Gran Movimiento (2021) show, by themselves, the details that make up these so-called bastions of progress seem almost expressionistic: distorted reflections, cacophonous ambiances, shiny new textures forcefully superimposed over the decaying older ones. As soon as we start to pay attention, the experience of transiting through an urban center seems more like an endless pilgrimage through a series of liminal spaces, an aseptic collection of places where anonymous bodies carelessly walk about without an ounce of life in them. But in the city, nothing exists by itself. Everybody roaming these nameless streets has their own story, their possible intersections being what gives this dense, communal outpost its essence.
In El Gran Movimiento, the narrative focuses on a group of miners from the rural town of Huanuni who walk for seven days with the hope of finding a stable source of income in the capital city of La Paz. This is the same collection of individuals previously featured in Russo’s Viejo Calavera (2016), with young Elder (Julio César Ticona) also serving as the film's anchor. However, this isn’t merely a change of setting. Switching the obscure and claustrophobic mines of the Bolivian countryside for the sweeping barrage of the city exerts a different weight on their shoulders, as seen by Elder’s progressively faltering health state. Everybody he asks about his precarious condition seems out of answers. Whatever is causing his bodily decay seems to be from a realm beyond that of earthly causes.
The city is never merely a backdrop in Latin American cinema. Despite the idiosyncrasies of each nation and the specific circumstances that’ve forged their identities, the common threads of shared experience become a unifying factor. As the ever growing metropolises of the early twentieth century cemented their roles as economic epicenters of their respective countries, financially burdened figures originally from the countryside, like El Gran Movimiento’s Elder, became an inherent part of the cityspace. Naturally, this displacement set the city as an adversarial force for many.
In the history of Latin American cinema, early depictions of the city focused on its corrosive and inhuman aura. Be it the murderous nihilists that terrorize Mexico City in Enrique Rosas’s El autómovil gris (1919), or the thankless environment that suppresses the possibility of love in Humberto Mauro’s Braza Dormida (1928), the first expressions of film in the region tended to use concrete jungles as places essentially opposed to popular well-being.
Later on, the city’s ominous presence was reluctantly accepted as something irrefutable, a monolithic figure from which one couldn’t really escape, but merely assimilate. Accordingly, the narrative trend switched towards characters battling with the tension of being forced into a place that doesn’t really welcome them. These are the peanut vendors from the Río de Janeiro’s favelas in Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rio, 40 Graus (1955) and the Santa Fé children waiting for the spare coins left by train passengers in Fernando Birri’s Tire dié (1958). Unlike the traditionalist stance of pre-1950s narratives, this latter approach hasn’t really been superceded in such a direct fashion, but it has expanded and diversified beyond the neorealist inflexions of the sixties Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano and the revolutionary ethos of the Third Cinema movement.
No matter how heterogenous its form, or how postmodern it renders its landscapes, El Gran Movimiento’s view of La Paz is still undoubtedly linked to the canons of urban relationships in Latin American film, particularly its more modernist approximations. For example, the hectic montages and near omnipresent angles from which the city is constructed cinematically have more in common with the Soviet-style formalism of São Paulo, a Metropolitan Symphony (1929) than any contemporaries in the current festival circuits.
Early on, Russo establishes the camera as another inhabitant of La Paz, a wondrous entity that flows seamlessly from surfaces to interactions and vice versa. This series of perpetual zoom-ins and pans ceaselessly scan the frame for the next anecdote to record or vignette to capture. Russo’s camera fluctuates as an extension of the city’s constant motion. Nevertheless, no matter the camera’s omnipresence and the almost mythological aura that exudes from how the Super 16mm grain recontextualizes architecture, the thrust of El Gran Movimiento still lies within its humanity.
The kinetic tempo and rhythmic editing of this opening collection of metropolitan textures eventually slows down to focus on a manifestation happening on a city square. The enveloping drone of the film’s score gives way to continuous chants of dissent coming from Elder and his colleague miners from Huanuni. Their request is simple: work opportunities. Each of their protest chants exalts the hardship and vigor of the labor they’ve been accustomed to, seeking to make visible the spilled blood and back-breaking conditions normalized as status quo.
From there, the film explores different cityscapes in La Paz, all stitched together by Elder drifting aimlessly from cramped markets to seedy discotheques. Throughout these scattered sequences of urban snapshots, Russo exploits the setting’s overwhelming nature in order to increase sensory overload. Careless passersby constantly invade the frame, and the aural refractions of machinery blend in with Miguel Llanque’s haunting score. El Gran Movimiento makes claustrophobia, dissociation and all oppressive forces of the metropolis feel palpable through its unorthodox frames, spontaneous camera movements and constant dissonance.
As the film reaches its climax, the overbearing city atmosphere and Elder’s moldering state intertwine in a furious explosion of timelines and sensations, a rapid montage that materializes El Gran Movimiento’s core subject. Elder’s vitality began to leave his body as soon as he arrived in La Paz, where the toll of marginalization reduced him to little more than a walking corpse, a living personification of the Quechua concept of mancharisk’a (frightened soul).
The city that Russo depicts feels authentic in its hyperreality. This is a colorful and baroque setting whose semblance is as alluring as it is doomladen. It’s no surprise that so many people are lost to the cold promises of urbanity when its veneer is as intoxicating as the one portrayed in El Gran Movimiento.