They had a son, Nathan, a dark-eyed angel. But Roberta didn’t want to live Jorge’s tropical hand-to-mouth existence anymore; she was going back to Rome, and she was going to take the now 5-year-old Nathan with her.
We learn all of this in flashback, from snapshots and grainy video, at the outset of Alamar, a new film by Brussels-born Pedro Gonzàlez-Rubio, and the best movie I’ve seen in ages. (Stella Pence, one of the founders of the Telluride Film Festival, sent the recommendation.)
The story begins as Jorge takes Nathan out to the Banco Chinchorro for a last father-son idyll before Nathan joins his mother in Italy. The Banco is the richest coral reef in Mexico, a barely-inhabited atoll 30 miles offshore, and a protected Biosphere Reserve. There is a small cadre of fishermen, a co-operative, that is allowed to live and fish there.
We are told none of this; we simply watch, and listen, as a choppy swell rocks the aging powerboat that takes them out to the reef, and Jorge, sitting near the stern, holds his broad hand (like a lullaby, like a catcher-in-the-rye) against the little boy’s chest.
They are met at anchor by a skiff and a weathered older man Jorge calls “Grandpa” but who is likely not his father. They go to his fishing shack in the lagoon, which is built on stilts off the mangrove-tangled shore of a tiny island. And here the rest of the movie unfolds with the rhythms of the sea, days fishing with hand lines from the skiff or else diving for lobster in glass-clear water, afternoons spent cleaning the catch on their shaded deck, nights in their hammocks listening to the soft slap of water against the pilings.
Nothing really happens. Unless you count the barracuda flopping in the bilge at their feet, or the crocodile lurking just off the beach where Nathan is helping clean the skiff. Or the slow, sweet bonding that takes place over time: Nathan clinging to his father’s shoulder but gaining confidence with a mask and snorkel; Nathan and Jorge befriending a snow-white cattle egret migrating from Africa that lands on the deck for insect snacks. They name her Blanquita.
An amateur reviewer on imdb.com commented that “anyone with a video camera could have made this movie.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. Gonzàlez-Rubio is a master of the language of cinema, of letting images tell the story – elegantly composed, patient images together with perfectly recorded ambient sound, including long stretches of silence. You feel as if you are there in this still, wet, abundant place.
On his last afternoon on the reef, Nathan sits at the outdoor table where they eat and draws a picture with colored pens. Five stingrays. Two barracudas. “Because you caught two, right?” he asks his papa. He draws Blanquita in flight. “What else did we see?”
While he draws, the two men talk quietly in the background. We don’t see them; the camera stays with Nathan’s hands and face in deep concentration.
“It hurts,” Jorge says, apparently without rancor.
“As people live,” the old man offers.
“It’s about that too.”
Nathan carefully folds his drawing and slips it into a glass jug along with an orange blossom they picked on one of the islets the last time they went looking for Blanquita. Jorge plugs the bottle with a cork and some plastic, and Nathan tosses it into the lagoon. It bobs in the glinting chop, drifts slowly toward the top edge of the frame. The camera doesn’t move. It’s as if it too is holding its breath.
The instant the bottle leaves the frame we are in Rome. Nathan and Roberta, in winter coats, stand on a bridge over a duck pond, their reflections in the water below. Roberta is blowing soap bubbles, but she can’t make a big one. Nathan reaches playfully for the bubble stick, but his mom says, “I can do a big one!”
And she does. And it drifts away, its liquid rainbows reflecting the city.
“Grab it!” Nathan shouts, just as the bubble pops on its own. And the screen goes black.