In Land and Shade, an old farmer, Alfonso (Haimer Leal), comes home after many years to repair his relationship with his dying son, Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), his quietly resentful wife (Hilda Ruiz), and a grandson, Manuel (José Felipe Cárdenas), he doesn’t yet know. Director César Augusto Acevedo props stunning images of man’s despairing relationship to the land on the barest of narrative bones, mostly a collection of long shots of characters trying to endure existence without completely shattering. They head to and from work in sugar cane fields, only to be denied their pay; they try to fly a kite on a windless day; and they build feeding tables for birds that never turn up.
The Colombia of Land and Shade recalls the Brazilian agreste region in Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Vidas Secas in the perverse way that the landscape seems to push the characters away at the same time that it anchors them into place, suggesting that elsewhere is a promise that only dreams can keep. At times, it’s as if the people of Acevedo’s film are literally walking the same steps of the Brazilian migrants in dos Santos’s cinema novo classic—as when the camera stares at Alfonso, his wife, and Manuel walking down the cane fields that “cut like razor blades” from the very same angle dos Santos observes his characters as they cross the cracked earth to escape the drought. If the family in Vidas Secas attempts to survive by moving around in space, the family at the heart of Land and Shade is only allowed to move in the realm of fantasy until the very end of the film. Some will leave their wretchedness behind, though not all will do so willfully.
In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Alfonso and Manuel are building the feeding tables for the birds outside their home when Gerardo joins them from inside. Gerardo is wearing a white blanket wrapped around his face and body, suggesting a ghost. Nothing much happens, except for the son’s fruitless attempts to whistle for the birds to come down from the sky, but it’s an eerie moment where death is materialized as the necessary link between generations, and as an actually gentle presence to be tended to, like a baby, instead of disavowed. And in another uncanny sequence, Alfonso inexplicably finds a horse inside an empty room of the house. He promptly opens the main door to let the animal out and it gallops away. As soon as the horse races outside, Acevedo cuts to Manuel whistling once again for the birds to fly down, to no avail. As in Jorge Furtado’s Isle of Flowers, where pigs get to scavenge through the garbage before certain men, it’s as if free will were no longer a human need, but a equine or avian luxury.