Quality Time


Pedro González-Rubio, Alamar, 2009, color film, 73 minutes. Natan Machado Palombini and Jorge Machado.

IN ALAMAR (TO THE SEA) (2009), a record of a trip that was conceived for the purpose of the film, the Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio uses real people and an echo of their real-life situation to create what you might call a documentary about happiness––a project at once straightforward and delicate, every bit as simple and as profound as it sounds. The backstory emerges in a prologue of family snapshots and home movies: Several years ago, Jorge and Roberta fell in love and had a son named Natan. Now separated, still devoted to their boy, the two are moving on with their lives in the places they know best––he’s Mayan Mexican and remains in the Yucatán; she’s Italian and has returned to Rome. “I’m unhappy with your reality as you are with mine,” Roberta says, which leaves their five-year-old in the position, both difficult and privileged, of having to straddle two very different worlds.

Roberta packs her son up for a vacation with his father, who brings him to a tiny fishing community by a pristine coral reef off the southern coast of Quintana Roo called Banco Chinchorro. (The reef was declared a biosphere reserve in the 1990s, and there are plans to turn it into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) From an offhandedly moving shot of Jorge resting his palm on his seasick son’s chest during the outward journey, Alamar takes shape as a collection of intimate father-son moments. Extending the generational scope, the two stay with Jorge’s father, Matraca, in his palafitte, a hut on stilts above water; each father imparts knowledge and teaches patience to his son. Natan’s experience is one of constant discovery; he learns how to snorkel and fish, to spear lobster and dodge crocodiles. The one shred of narrative concerns the appearance––and disappearance––of a friendly white egret, christened Blanquita. Under his father’s watchful eye, Natan grows to appreciate the manual work that an elemental existence demands as well as the leisurely rewards that come with it.

Acting as his own cinematographer (he also edited the film), González-Rubio pulls off a remarkable balancing act––his HD camera is tropistically alert to beauty and sensation but also capable of effacing its own presence, whether in the cramped palafitte or on a narrow fishing boat. (This talent for close-up, small-crew observation was put to very different ends in González-Rubio’s first film, Toro negro [2005], codirected with Carlos Armella, a harrowing character study of an abusive, self-destructive bullfighter whose nickname, El Suicida, sums up his approach in the ring.)

Alamar is an easy film to love––it has probably won more prizes than any other film on the festival circuit this past year (taking top awards at Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Miami, and many more)––and some might say too easy. But as lovely as it is, the movie is never merely picturesque. González-Rubio has not just photographed an idyllic location but, with the help of deft editing and use of sound, captured nearly its full effect on the senses. Alamar is, in essence, one sensory high after another: turquoise waters, open skies, reef dives, hammock naps, salt spray, the waves at night. And in its attention to rituals and rhythms, the things that make up a way of life, it also continues a long tradition of fisherman ethnography that dates to Robert Flaherty and encompasses films like Carlos Velo’s Almadrabas (1934), Agnès Varda’s La Pointe courte (1955), and Margot Benacerraf’s Araya (1959).

As a meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons, and between man and nature, Alamar is perhaps unfashionably utopian. González-Rubio has said he had Peter Pan in mind, and there is a sense in which his boys’ adventure takes place in Neverland. But the film is no less poignant and vitalizing for being a self-conscious ideal, a paradise temporarily gained. When the title appears, it’s through a freshly sawn window, pushed out onto a picture-perfect sky-and-sea vista, an acknowledgment of the movie’s fictional frame. As the film ends, Natan commemorates his trip with a Sharpie sketch, which he plans to roll up into a glass bottle and set adrift “to Italy or Mexico.” The boy draws the highlights of his time by the sea––stingrays, barracudas, Blanquita––and then remembers one last thing: “The camera.”

Alamar runs July 14-20 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

Dennis Lim