Alamar is as much about the way a coat of yellow paint looks spread across wooden planks as it is the tender regard a father bestows on his son or the manner by which a lobster is speared and stripped. Marked by a hushed stillness, sensitive to the rhythmic repetition of daily activity, Pedro González-Rubio’s film maximizes the expressive possibilities of the director-cinematographer’s digital camerawork, turning its Banco Chinchorro setting into a shimmering landscape in which the clarity and brightness of the water’s bold green-blues is matched by the eye-straining, manmade incandescence of a pastel hammock or a glowing yellow stripe across a fisherman’s navy shirt.
A story of initiation into a tradition-based way of life, Alamar details the largely wordless bonding of Jorge (Jorge Machado), a half-primitive man with flashing curls of dirty-blond hair and a bone for an earring, and his young son, Natan (Natan Machado Palombini), as they spend several days on the aforementioned Mexican coral reef before the boy returns to live with his mother in “civilization” (i.e. Italy). With the help of an elder fisherman, Jorge teaches his son the art of subsistence fishing, working through the endless cycle of catching the prey (using both reels and spears), and then scaling and cooking the dead fish, while the boy alternates between bursts of enthusiasm and inevitable distraction. Along the way, the pair befriends a long-legged bird who follows them around from house to boat and whom they teach to sit on their hands.
Which about exhausts the narrative. The rest of the film’s in the details, whether focusing on the process of fishing with a documentary-like curiosity (luscious underwater footage of spear hunting, footage of the men cutting off fish heads and tossing them to the crocodiles) or homing in on the verbal and (mostly) nonverbal ways in which father and son are drawn inexorably together. These bonds are expressed in both the loving glances with which Jorge takes in his son (as in an early scene in which the boy curls up in his father’s arms) and the increasingly physical play between the two. This last reaches its apex in a wrestling match which is as notable for the vivid ebullience of the setting as it is the frenzied unity-in-physicality of the characters.
As González-Rubio brings his camera in close, occasionally abstracting father and son into a tangled blur, the yellow of the painted wall, the painted stripes of the hammocks and the soft yellows and pinks of a carpet burst forth from the background in piercing counterpoint. There’s little question that Alamar‘s stunning visuals constantly court the dangers of a studied aestheticism (even when Natan sketches out a drawing, its childishness is stylized into a kind of folk art), but González-Rubio is smart enough to set them off against a genuinely involved inquiry into the process of the piscatory profession or, as here, use them to comment on the binding of the father-son relationship, none of which would matter if the director’s HD camera didn’t fill the screen with such vivid, eye-popping pulsations in the first place.