Carlos César Arbeláe’s The Colors of the Mountain follows three Colombian boys as they try to recover a soccer ball from a minefield, and that scenario, pared nearly to the point of parable, is obviously symbolic of larger things. The setting is the mountainous region of Colombia called La Pradera, and from the film’s very opening Arbeláe allows us to understand the menace that’s not so subtly invading the region. La Pradera is clearly about to be swept up in a larger civil war: We see guerrilla fighters pressuring the neutral civilians with implied force to join their cause, while the Colombian military periodically sweeps in to kill anyone they suspect of joining the uprising. In other words, the typical villager who hopes to keep his nose clean is literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The country is the in midst of the sort of turmoil in which even painting a mural on the side of a school house can be read as subversive and dangerous. But the boys try to ignore the increasingly alarming signs of destabilization; all they want is that damn ball.
Contrasting the innocence of children with the mercilessness of war can be a cheap move, as it would be impossible to put a child in some sort of danger and not score points on the injustice of man’s need to periodically destroy himself. But there’s also a rich tradition of beautiful, tough-minded films built around this contrast, such as Forbidden Games and Hope and Glory, to name two admittedly obvious examples. The Colors of the Mountain isn’t as memorable as those films (not many are), but it’s still a poetic and striking experience. Arbeláe, making his debut, probably has the stuff of a major filmmaker: He already understands the succinct power of images, and by my count, he entirely avoids the use of topic-sentence dialogue to ensure that we follow along. He’s also already extremely confident with actors; the film’s performances—particularly those of the children, who are superb—have the sort of effortless, lived-in quality that many will underrate, assuming the actors to be found objects.
The polish of Arbeláe’s storytelling is deceptive. Every gorgeous image so logically and comfortably fits into the next that you may think you’re watching a more tranquil, sentimental film than you actually are, and you can be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that you have the ending figured out 10 minutes into the film. Of course, the film will conclude with the star, Manuel (Hernán Ocamp), grasping the stranded soccer ball as a signifier of the human spirit’s durability, even in times of great chaos. But Arbeláe takes that expectation and upends it: Manuel gets the ball, but it’s clear the film understands that the soccer ball no longer means anything. Manuel and his family, at the film’s conclusion, could very well be on their way to an earthbound hell.
Arbeláe doesn’t let anger cloud his humanity though, and he never sacrifices the ambiguity of his images to score points. The Colors of the Mountain has a number of scenes that stay with you: Manuel and his friend playing with various kinds of unfired bullets, a mixture of innocence and brutishness that directly recalls Forbidden Games; the children’s teacher, whom movie formula might lead us to belief is going to affect change in some way, putting her head in her hands as she finally grasps the extent of her powerlessness; the painting of the mural (the source of the film’s title), which in many ways is the greatest act of kindness we see in the film; or, perhaps most hauntingly, the way Manuel spontaneously hugs his father as they ride the bus to run errands. The last moment is so convincing, so evocative of the periodic solace we’ve all needed to take in the presence of our elders in times of pain, that it nearly stops the film cold. And it should, as it’s moments like this that give you an idea of what’s truly at stake as you pass over yet another story of a small country being blown to pieces in favor of yet another Charlie Sheen pictorial in Star.