Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

Sponsored links

The world is a magical place, especially if you’re 5 years old.

Father teaches son how to live off the sea
Father teaches son how to live off the sea

What I Did on Summer Vacation

At the very beginning of Alamar, home movies show an Italian-speaking woman starting a romance with a Spanish-speaking man. By the end of the introduction, they have had a son and split up, amicably, because the lives they want to lead are too completely different.

Mom rousts her five-year-old son, Natan, out of bed. She puts on his shirt, his hoodie, his backpack. She walks with him out to a bus stop where dad arrives to take him away. Dad is golden brown, has flowing, wavy hair, and is not wearing a shirt. It’s a long bus ride, and it ends on a shore. They board a boat. Dad helps take off the boy’s backpack, his hoodie, then his shirt. Now he looks more like his father.

They arrive at their destination — father’s house, a house on stilts in some of the bluest water you’ve ever seen. Grandpa is there too.

For the rest of the summer, Natan lives with them, living off the bounty of the sea. They are not commercial fishermen. They use spears and hooks to catch one fish at a time. They dive for lobsters using snorkels and catch long barracudas with hooks. They do sell some of their catch to buy gasoline for their outboard motor, and just a little coffee. But their lives are close to subsistence, and they are very content.

Sometime during the summer, an egret walks into their house, and Natan and his father learn that it likes to eat bugs. Though they never quite tame “Blanquita,” the bird seems to adopt them, at least for a time.

Best of Both Worlds

Alamar doesn’t tell you whether it’s a documentary or a fictional drama. It looks like a documentary, and as such the storytelling and cinematography are outstanding — maybe a little too good to believe. Scenes play out like in a drama, each one with a little story arc. Individual shots are perfectly framed.

But it doesn’t feel like a scripted drama, either, because Natan’s delight and fear are so genuine. No child actor is that good. Further, if it were scripted, you would likely feel the hand of the screenwriter, pushing the characters toward a conclusion. Instead, it feels like a summer spent on the sea.

At the end, credits roll and character names are listed next to actors: Natan was played by Natan Machado Palombini; Jorge was played by Jorge Matado, and Roberta was played by Roberta Palombini.

I usually dislike movies that try to blend documentary and narrative, but Alamar is a rare and wonderful exception.

‘Swonderful

One of the wonderful things about Alamar is that even though the film opens on irreconcilable differences, divorce, and custody issues, there is no fighting over Natan. There is just a difference of opinion. Both love their son and are big about it.

But perhaps the best thing about it is that it captures the magic of being five. Natan, presumably has never left the city; he wakes up to an alarm clock, like most of Alamar ‘s audience. And suddenly he’s transported to a completely different place. Each new experience is a revelation to him, and vicariously, to us — the house, the fish, the egret, eating something new, snorkeling for the first time.

Yet we adults may be able to appreciate the experience on another level, too. For us, it’s a way to return to our hunter-gatherer roots. Alamar simplifies life almost to its bare essentials and simple pleasures: water, warmth, food, few hardships, the beauty of the surroundings, the earthy magic of learning about all God’s creatures. The only lesson to learn about danger is to stay away from the crocodile.

Going in to the film, I didn’t know that it was a “hybrid” between documentary and feature. I realized after the fact that some of those too-good-to-be-true shots were probably staged or re-staged. I don’t think that makes me like this magical movie any less magical, but I’d have to see it again to be sure.

That would be fine by me.

  • Marge Andrews: The fifth sentence from the end is confusing, needs correcting. February 22, 2011 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Oops. Thanks. February 24, 2011 reply