Drama, not rated, in Spanish and Italian with subtitles
If you're lucky when you're a kid, you get to have at least one unforgettable summer that stands out from all others—the summer you learned to swim in the deep end; the one when you were finally allowed to ride your bike around town or go to the movies with your friends; or the last summer you spent with your dad before you moved to Rome with your mom. Alamar (To the Sea)—spans such a summer for 7-year-old Natan Machado Palombini, who accompanies his father, Jorge, to his home at Banco Chinchorro in Quintana Roo, “a jungle in the middle of the sea” and the richest coral reef site in Mexico, according to the film. Along with Natan’s grandfather, Nestór Marín, they spend their final weeks together fishing, living in a small wooden hut built upon stilts in the water.
There isn't much plot to Alamar, and for moviegoers who rely on action and rapid-fire dialogue, it will feel interminably slow (though it lasts just 73 minutes). Originally released in Mexico in 2009, it has received several awards, including the Audience Award and the Feature Film Competition Award at the Morelia International Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Prize at the Toulouse Latin American Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Prize for Ibero-American Competition at the Miami Film Festival. Writer/director Pedro González-Rubio has been purposefully vague when asked if Alamar is a narrative film or documentary. The actors play themselves and the situation is real—Natan really is moving to Rome with his Italian mother; Jorge really did grow up fishing the Banco Chinchorro—but many camera shots and scenes were obviously set up for storytelling, tone, and beauty. The result is a hypernatural, sympathetic piece of art that is equal parts portrait of father/son relationships, tri-generational coming-of-age story, and nature film.
An initial expository sequence gracefully sketches the romance between Machado and Roberta Palombini and their eventual disillusionment with each other’s lifestyles and temperaments. There doesn't seem to be animosity, just a parting of the ways. Soon, Natan is traveling from Roberta’s home in the city with a shirtless, shoeless, wild-haired Jorge to Banco Chinchorro, which they reach by bus, by foot, by boat, and then by a smaller boat. Natan is seasick for much of the long journey, and in the way Jorge cares for and watches over him, we first witness the intimacy of their relationship, a closeness and protection entirely lacking the “He’s my son!” bravado typical of American cinema. The camera’s point of view serves as an integral fourth member of the fishing family. It lets us know how to feel about the sea. When Natan is sick on the boat, we too can feel the endless rocking of the boat on the water. The shallow water, where their house is, is clean and placid, calming in its ripples; the camera lingers long enough on each shot to induce a state of mild hypnosis in the viewer. The camera also pays close attention to each person's inherent character—the pace of speech, the surfaces of skin, the energy he or she brings to activities and interactions. Jorge is firm but reassuring when he teaches Natan how to snorkel, as if he knows exactly what fears the little boy has of the plastic tube and mask. Nestór is equally patient as he instructs Jorge how to pull in barracuda, which they eat for dinner in hand-pressed tortillas. Later, when Natan is able to snorkel with more confidence, the camera shows us how the water opens up to him, the expanse of sea beneath him as deep and mysterious as the jungle that surrounds them.
It is a movie of small moments. An egret enters their home and becomes a sort of pet; Natan names it Blanquito. Natan squeals with delight as Jorge cleans fish and tosses guts up to the gulls that swoop down to grab each offering. The closer they get to the end of their time together, the more Jorge and Nestór prepare Natan for what will come next. No matter where Natan is, Jorge reassures him, he will always be caring for him. In a scene with no dialogue or context, Jorge and Natan wrestle on the floor of the living room. Natan is still small enough that he must strain with some force against the effortless ways his dad manages to immobilize him. The immense trust and love between the two fairly leaps off the screen, and one can’t help but wonder how long it will be before they see each other again. There are no “spoilers” to give away, no twists or secrets to Alamar. It will likely promote deep, restful sleep to dreams of gently lapping waves and bird calls. Some viewers might be inspired to go fishing, possibly in Mexico. It's a quiet movie, deceptively simple, with a lingering impact.
The review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 09/03/2010