Out of the Blue
by Michael Koresky

Dir. Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico, Film Movement

The other day, while strolling a humid Brooklyn street, I overheard a twentysomething woman talking to her friends about her movie predilections. Her life is stressful, as it turns out, her work hours long and her job serious. When she goes to the movies, she wants to unwind, to take in easily digestible entertainment—to, as she put it, “put her brain on autopilot.” That this person plausibly represents a key urban intellectual demographic that was once connected and clued in to what was going on in film outside the multiplex and is now resigned to Hollywood’s paltry offerings, while justifying her artistic and emotional laziness on grounds of taste, is a matter too depressing to wrestle with at this juncture. But what’s also fascinating about her casual commentary is what it reveals about many viewers’ idea of escapism in film, and what we’ve come to label as such. If one wants to escape from the toll of the daily grind, why must it necessitate putting one’s brain “on autopilot”? Why has film culture split so drastically between high and low that any alternative to Hollywood fare is perceived as difficult and forbidding? In order for film to survive as a valid art form, audiences need to wish to escape to worlds not commercially prescribed to them. One need not retreat to fantasy to escape.

In a perfect world, Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar would be widely hailed and received as the movie of the summer. Escapist in the truest and least perturbing sense of the word, this conceptually gentle but artistically bold fiction-documentary hybrid takes viewers to a lush, vivid natural world—the second largest coral reef on the planet, the Banco Chinchorro to be exact, located in Quintana Roo, Mexico. It is in this serene place, never made overly picturesque or romantic by González-Rubio, that we grow acquainted with a father and son: lithe, thirtysomething fisherman Jorge Machado and incandescent prepubescent Natan Machado Palombini. The primal purity of the scenario is shocking—it’s simply the father imparting to his son the ways of his work. Man and child bond, but there’s nothing ritualized about it; their behavior and actions have a natural ebb and flow, guided only by forces of nature—sea, sky, love.

Before we are shuttled to this Eden, González-Rubio starts us off in what will be for most viewers a more recognizable contemporary, urban locale. In tight black-and-white frames, we see Rome (coliseum, street lights) whizzing by; is it early morning or evening? There’s a light interplay of untranslated Italian and Spanish volleying back and forth between cab driver and passenger, Jorge. As we soon discover, this friendly, warm-spirited man is going to pick up Natan, who lives with his mother in this European metropolis, and temporarily whisk him away to Mexico. We then learn the back story of Jorge and separated wife, Roberta, in color stills and narration: their three and a half years together have come to an end, poignantly leaving them only with Natan, even as their disparate lives have left them on different continents: Europe and North America, city and jungle, granite and water. Things fell apart, she explains, but this specific child was born, an emblem of their love. In home video footage we see Natan as a baby, standing assisted by Roberta in an idyllic backyard, and then being swept around in a joyous dance with Jorge—incidentally the last time we will see the father contained by walls and ceiling.

If these people, even at this early juncture, seem authentic, that’s because they are not constructed. González-Rubio met Machado while the latter was working in Banco Chinchorro, giving guides to tourists, playing music, making handcrafts. The film thus follows real people on lightly fabricated journeys, acting out their familial issues, but only through ethnographic action—doing and being. González-Rubio’s instinct for Machado as a compelling camera subject was dead on, but little Natan is as much a discovery. With his compassionate and curious saucer eyes, the child is immensely lovable and scampish without ever tipping over into being cloying or self-conscious, and through elegant, shrewd cutting, he gives a performance of unforced power couched in his own very real childhood anxieties and joys. As the film proper begins, Natan is gently stirring awake, as his mother strokes his hair, telling him his father is soon to arrive. In his bed, Natan is surrounded by wallpaper and sheets decorated with patterns of planets; it’s a far cry from the netted hammock in which he will find himself lovingly ensconced in a seaside shack by the waters of Quintana Roo, but both radiate womblike warmth. This is a child intensely loved, and above all the matters that Alamar is concerned with (the beauty and challenges of global child-rearing, the personal and professional plight of fishermen, the disappearing coral reef), what resonates most is the sense of this child’s care, his very different parents’ desire to watch him grow healthily, wisely, and with boundless affection for the world around him.

Alamar never condescends into binaries of city meets country or civilization versus the primitive. Jorge and Natan’s adventures have the verdant, lush texture of a Gauguin painting, but González-Rubio doesn’t survey this world as though an exotic paradise getaway. This is ultimately a place of toil and hardship, and the film’s most important “character” (a term to be used lightly) outside of the broken family at its center, Matraca, serves as reminder of this. Jorge’s mentor and friend, Matraca is a fellow fisherman, also plying his trade in the azure waters where Natan gets his first taste of the elements. At certain points, the film stops to look at and listen to the largely taciturn, clearly good-hearted Matraca, so far from his real family, yet so connected to Jorge, a surrogate son of sorts, and Natan, with whom he has a touching, graceful bond. The craggy, benevolent Matraca gives the film an Old Man and the Sea grace, a glimpse into Jorge’s possible weather-beaten future.

Alongside Jorge, Matraca catches oversized snappers, writhing barracuda, and wriggling lobsters, all captured on brilliantly vivid HD, partly by González-Rubio, serving as his own cinematographer, and also by Alexis Zabe (who shot the visually spectacular Silent Light), responsible here for the many ethereally gorgeous, soul-calming underwater scenes. Alamar goes mostly without music, preferring to transport viewers via natural sounds like water lapping against boats, birds flapping, wood planks creaking. This is a film so attuned to nature that one can easily drift off from the human narrative going on around its crystalline waters, cloudy skies, lounging crocodiles, and frigate birds. One of its most glorious interpersonal dynamics, in fact, occurs between Jorge and Natan and a charmingly trusting egret, which the child names “Blanquita.” Stalking around their stilt-perched cabin, hunting for insects and perhaps fish cast off from last night’s dinner, the stork-like friend becomes a character in this narrative as essential as father and son. Natan’s realization that the wild Blanquita cannot stay coincides heartrendingly with the acknowledgment of the same truth about his father. The sea is calling.

“No matter what happens I’ll be looking after you,” Jorge tells his son in the grove. Thus Alamar feels like a gift. From Jorge to Natan, who is gazed at with the adoration only a parent could seemingly afford their child, but also González-Rubio to viewers tired of the same old cinematic destinations. What better way to commemorate the beauty of the world’s disappearing reefs (Banco Chinchorro gets a final pre-credits shout-out) than by also celebrating the ephemeral in human relationships? As with all the best getaways, movie or otherwise, Alamar reminds you of who you are even if you escape your life for a little while.