Inspired by a recent, virtually undocumented tragedy that befell a small Peruvian village that simply had the misfortune to be located next to a gold mine, Altiplano hypnotically braids strands of Incan mythology, Catholic voodoo, and campesino outrage to style a sympathetic outsider’s portrait of South American mysticism. Recounting the alternately somber and butterfly-stomached rituals that precede the marriage of town beauty Saturnina (Magaly Solier), and their disruption by the subtly alarming effects of an unnoticed mercury spill, directors Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth delve into the oneiric peculiarities of local culture; we’re surrounded, and at times suffocated, by deadpan masks with demonically humanoid features and quotidian totems (maize, textiles, iron pendants) with glinting puissance.
To utilize these presumably commonplace costumed practices for grotesque tension at first feels eerily insensitive; the devilishly blinding light and misshapen visages of the bad-omen opening suggest a luminously inverted Latino spook house with a cracked virgin statue at its climax. But the environment’s highlighted eccentricities allow it to gather a shockingly subversive brand of ecclesiastically powered strength; the backward beliefs that contribute to the subalternhood of Peru’s bottom class here seem to be exacting revenge with oppressive, cultish confidence. It’s like watching Alejandro Jodorowsky attempt to direct a south-of-the-border Erin Brockovich.
Brosens and Woodworth aren’t entirely comfortable with the offbeat nature of their “reportage,” however. When Altiplano renders its community’s descent into mineral-inflicted madness with increasingly lysergic landscapes, it feels like the political film of the year; from the “liquid silver” that coruscates in eye-catching puddles to the scorched, splayed clothing of Saturnina’s mercury-dispatched fiancée, the movie’s imagery tans us with superstitious fury. But the directors overplay their lyricism instead of providing more fittingly prosaic portrayals of activity outside Choropampa—even an optometry slit lamp exam is rendered with mannered chiaroscuro—and offer the disjointed narrative an awkwardly conventional contrast with a disillusioned photojournalist subplot.
The Iranian photographer, Grace (Jasmin Tabatabai)—even her name strikes us as brow-furrowingly allegorical—travels to Peru after her doctor-without-borders of a husband is stoned to death by confused and untreatable villagers. And while her straightforward, grief-driven perspective provides a palpable reminder that the movie’s events are steeped in fact rather than simply Gabriel García Márquez-inspired, nightmarish ramblings, the more overtly polemical nature of her story seems impotent beside Choropampa’s menacingly empty-eyed procession masks. An early attempt at visual and emotional rhyme between her experiences in the Middle East and the robbing of Saturnina’s wedding night by careless capitalism seems like a cheating grasp at relevancy—as if the surrealistic struggles of a South American town could only be legitimized by an interloper with one foot in today’s headline news.
As it becomes apparent that Brosens and Woodworth have set Grace and Saturnina on paths pointing toward third-act collision, the film’s tonal achievements steadily begin to pale—and, in one critical scene captured with the putative reality of low resolution, we nearly lose their beauty entirely. But the directors prove dedicated to their aesthetic in the satisfactory denouement, a pugnaciously black-and-white paean to the Peruvian victims lost to history’s overwriting, whom mere activism could not avenge. The anger in the piss-colored river water that accompanies the faux miracle of the finale resonates more viscerally than any ham-fisted symbols of avaricious opportunism could ever hope to. Those seeking enlightenment from the humanitarian aspects of Altiplano are likely to find it too confusingly lyrical by half—but despite the film’s obvious rhetorical objectives and formidably flawed middle, in that half lies its worth.