(Photo: Outsider Pictures)
The land in director César Acevedo’s debut feature Land And Shade is scarred and charred, covered in ashy particulates that’ve settled onto the ground from a sugar company’s controlled burns of nearby cane-fields. And the shade’s not that great either. Because the skies are filled with smoke, one rural family keeps the windows of their small rural farmhouse closed and curtained, which means that whenever they’re indoors (which they often are in this movie), they’re mostly shrouded in darkness. That complicates the filmmaking for Acevedo, who has to find a way to hold the audience’s interest with images that are frequently dim. But based on this film, he’s the kind of director who likes a challenge—and to be challenging.
Land And Shade is a slow-paced art-film, where the static shots are held at length and the characters pause between lines of dialogue, to give viewers plenty of chances to register the mood, look, feel, and significance of everything Acevedo shows. One key difference between this picture and a lot of other languorous world cinema is that the people in Land And Shade talk more frequently, and they’re inclined to say exactly what they mean. It’s not hard to follow the movie’s basic scenario: After years away, an elderly man named Alfonso (Haimer Leal) has returned home to his estranged wife Alicia (Hilda Ruiz) and his sickly grown son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), to help look after his 6-year-old grandson Manuel (José Felipe Cárdenas), while Gerardo’s wife Esperanza (Marleyda Soto) takes a job in the fields to keep the family fed.
The symbolic significance of the story is likewise clear. Here’s a group of hardworking country folk who are literally being choked out of their home by greedy capitalists. To make matters worse, when Esperanza tries to adapt to a bad situation by working for the people exploiting their land, she finds that the bosses don’t always pay what they’ve promised. When she complains, she’s told that she’s a lousy worker anyway and that her services are unneeded. Bit by bit, day by day, Alfonso’s loved ones are being cleared away.
Acevedo won the Camera D’Or at Cannes last year for this film, which undeniably represents an impressive debut for a formidable new talent. But is his deliberate style a good match for the angry political statement at Land And Shade’s center? The answer is mixed. There’s a disconnect at times between the indignities that these characters suffer and the handsomeness of Mateo Guzmán’s cinematography, which makes them look like figures in an old social-realist painting, instead of living, breathing human beings. Land And Shade is at its best in the scenes between Alfonso and Manuel, where the old man teaches his grandson about birds and kites, modeling what life should’ve been like for this family. Rarely is the movie as loose or organic as it is in those moments. More often it feels overdetermined.
Still, Acevedo has a wonderful command of visual storytelling, as evidenced by how well he frames those dark interiors; he and Guzmán use every spare beam of light to illuminate the edges of his characters. Though Land And Shade is too detached at times in its approach to environmental and human devastation, Acevedo does effectively capture the sense of Alfonso having just arrived in an alien landscape. The long takes of the old man sweeping the ash off his porch, or of his grandson wiping the thick layers of crud from the surrounding flora, say as much about the collateral damage of industrialization as any of the film’s predictable turns of plot. Land And Shade doesn’t fully come together, but there’s reason to be excited by Acevedo’s potential just from his opening shot, which shows Arturo walking leisurely down a gravel road before he’s forced off by a long truck that envelops him and the whole screen in a cloud of dust. Anyone who can construct an image that direct and meaningful is an artist to keep an eye on.