This début feature film for Colombian director Joan Gómez Endara is a conventional road movie in formal terms but it becomes something more because of its three leads, beautiful cinematography and the chance it offers to see more of Colombia than many other films from the region. For a début feature this is an accomplished piece of work, engaging and moving in its handling of the development of the relationship between two seemingly mismatched half-siblings.
Élicier is a forty-something (?) man living quietly alone in a village on Colombia’s western Caribbean coast. One day a man arrives at his door with a young girl, Esperanza (‘Hope’). He announces that Élicier’s father Nolasco has died and the little girl is actually his half sister. All this is news to Élicier who hasn’t seen his father for thirty years and at first doesn’t want to face the implications of Esperanza’s sudden appearance. But he is given an address for the girl’s mother in Bogota and realises his responsibility. Getting to the capital is a long and expensive journey from the coast up into the mountains and this is 1999 when the virtual civil war between FARC guerillas and government military forces is still going on even as peace talks are being pursued. The film is not about the civil war but it does mean that travel across the vast country, and especially into the mountains, is dangerous. When the journey begins, the siblings are joined by Toño, a young man who wants to try his luck as a boxer in Bogota. The inclusion of Toño is possibly the only flaw in the film as the script doesn’t really know what to do with him once he has been used as a plot device to complicate the journey. His story then gets rather lost.
The main narrative is underpinned by music and this is certainly a strength in the film. Nolasco had been a celebrated musician along the coast, playing the gaita. This is a wind instrument, something like the traditional European wooden recorder that in my day was used to introduce British schoolchildren to music. The gaita is quite a large instrument, made from dried cactus (a cardón) with a distinctive mouthpiece fashioned from beeswax, charcoal and a duck feather (now often using plastic instead). Confusingly, ‘gaita’ is also the Spanish word for a form of bagpipes. In Colombia gaita bands appear to be four or five piece outfits with one or two gaita players plus a trio of drummers. The music represents the fusion of African drumming with the indigenous playing of the gaita. In the film, the gaita which Esperanza finds in Élicier’s house (and which she insists on taking with her on the journey) becomes important in the bonding of the two central characters and also in Élicier’s rediscovery of his own identity. This is partly represented by the way in which the sound of the gaita recalls birdsong. The film’s title is also explained during the first real conversation between Élicier and Esperanza when we discover something about the gaita that she carries.
Here’s a YouTube clip of a group of gaiteros playing similar music to that used at the end of the film.
Carlos Vergara is very good as the quiet and withdrawn Élicier. He is an experienced actor and producer. Shaday Velasquez as the young girl is a beautiful child who is sometimes quite solemn and determined but who is also also capable of joy and laughter. Overall the film is a humanist story, the pair meet good and bad people on their journey. There is a satisfying conclusion to the narrative which doesn’t necessarily tie up all the loose ends. I’m sure there are more layers of meaning that may only be accessible by a local audience, one of which refers to the fate of an iguana. However, we do get a real sense of the diversity of Colombian culture and especially of one of its several important musical genres. El árbol rojo plays again at ¡Viva! on Tuesday 29th March at HOME Manchester.