Ciro Guerra's festival piece from a few years ago is an under-the-radar stunner. The story of a travelling musician looking to unload his cursed accordion makes for a lengthy and epic journey across the stunning landscape of Colombia with allusions to the American Western, the good ol’ fashioned road movie and the familiar literary rites of passage and mythological resonance of an Odyssian journey.
The Wind Journeys (2009) dir. Ciro Guerra Starring: Marciano Martínez, Yull Núñez
By Alan Bacchus
In the Colombian rural countryside that is the setting of this film, the accordion player is characterized, like a doctor or priest, as an important and valued member of society. These travelling musicians, called Troubadours, fulfill a number of roles in society, most importantly bringing light through entertainment to the very poor farmers.
Guerra’s lead character, Ignacio Carrillo, is one such man, an elderly and revered soft-spoken musician as loquacious as Alan Ladd’s Shane. But success in life has come at a price. After the death of his wife, he’s convinced his accordion is cursed, not unlike the blues legend Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. The only way to break the curse is to give the accordion back to its maker – like The Lord of the Rings but with an accordion. Along for the ride is a younger musician who may or may not be Ignacio’s son, but an apprentice who desires to absorb the essence of the type of musician his absentee father might have been.
It’s these familiar and grounded archetypal relationships that give this minuscule Colombian festival art film immense pathos and cinematic gravitas. It’s a stunning piece of cinema, one of those miracle discoveries which falls into one's lap by chance. It’s the July DVD of the Month from the Film Movement – the unique film distributor that essentially chooses and programs these films to its subscribers.
Along the journey the pair encounter a number of situations that make for often stunning set pieces. There’s a lengthy accordion duel in the first half, which features the village champion squaring off against any claimers to the title of champion - a thrilling trash-talking show-off, like an 8 Mile with accordions. There’s also an encounter between two men who duel to the death by machete on a bridge over water. And the young man's baptism by the blood of a lizard after proving his worth on the bongo drums is the stuff masterpieces are made of.
It’s also very arty and thus imposing to mainstream viewers. Guerra sets a ‘deliberately paced’ elegant and almost rhythmic style. Some might also call it 'slow'. But it fits in well with the use of landscape, pastoral widescreen compositions and the controlled pacing of a Carlos Reygadas film (Silent Light or Japon), or even the revered existential films of Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry).
The treasure of this film, though, is Paulo Andrés Pérez’s stunning cinematography. It's one of the best-looking films in international cinema I've seen in a while - rich colours pop out of the dense and textured frames. Fluid camera moves enhance the elegance and beauty of the Colombian landscape. Along the way, Guerra places his characters atop mountains peaks and in frames against stupendous god-like cloudscapes and sharp cliffs, which reminds us of the ethereal Herzog classic Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
Director Ciro Guerra, only 28 when he made this film, shows remarkable maturity and restraint, in addition to some solid chops of cinematic grandeur. He is a major international talent waiting to break out. The Wind Journeys never quite broke through, but with his next film Guerra is poised for Palme D’Or deification.