Manuel (Hernán Mauricio Ocampo) lives a simple life in the remote Columbia countryside, dreaming of one day becoming a great goalkeeper. So when he receives a brand new football for his 9th birthday, life seems perfect. But all is not well. The people of his village are caught between the guerrillas and the military, and the dangers become more personal when Manuel's new ball is stranded on a minefield. Manuel and his friends are determined to retrieve the precious ball and risk life and limb to get it back.
SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL: The loss of innocence, both in the heart of a football-obsessed little boy and in the spirit of a country’s people, is the central theme of Carlos César Arbeláez’s slow-burn heartbreaker The Colours of the Mountain. The Colombian/Panamanian co-production is a measured yet potent debut for the filmmaker, who exhibits a sublime command of his largely-inexperienced young cast and painter’s eye for the lush landscapes they inhabit.
In the rural, mountainous region of La Pradera, in a village of subsistent means and strong faith in God and nation, Manuel (Hernán Mauricio Ocampo) dreams of becoming a top-flight goalkeeper. Though handy around the farm, the 9-year-old’s world is a largely carefree combination of family and friends, most notably Julian (Nolberto Sánchez) and the albino Poca Luz (Genaro Aristzabal). Manuel is ecstatic when his father Ernesto (Hernan Mendez) gives him a new soccer ball – until the ball lands in a shallow valley that’s soon revealed to be minefield; a blackly comical reveal involving a runaway pig convinces all of the dangers involved.
The villagers, however, have greater concerns that Manuel doesn’t fully comprehend. Mountain guerrillas periodically descend upon the township for compulsory recruitment drives (there are violent consequences for dissenters). However, State-sanctioned murder is just as prevalent, when the brutal Army forces arrive to wipe out guerrillas and their supporters, and their actions strike fear in the simple folks hearts.
Antioquian native Arbeláez utilises a deceptively soft-touch to tell the story of Colombia’s 'desplazados por la violencia’ phenomenon – the percentage of the population made up of women, children and the elderly who have essentially become nomads, constantly fleeing the violent scourge that’s destroying their traditionally gentle lives. Fear and death has coursed through the region’s veins since 'La Violenca’, the brutal civil conflict that lasted between 1945 and 1965. The story of Manuel and his village unfolds in such an understated manner – distant gunfire or the hum of helicopters barely registers from beneath the cry of farmyard animals or the joyous yelps of boys playing football – one begins to wonder exactly where and when the deeper concerns of this beautifully-told tale will emerge.
But emerge they do, amidst horrible (largely off-screen) violence, familial discourse and the collapse of traditional village life. The sweetness of the boys’ existence and the idealism, personified in the form of their new school teacher (Natalia Cuéllar), is slowly overtaken by an unseen tension; Ocampo’s performance, one of the finest by a child actor in many years, perfectly captures a childhood crumbling in the face of a mounting realisation of the nature of the world around him.
'Innocence-in-wartime’ is a common cinematic motif (E.g. John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, 1987; Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, 1987; Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, 1962; René Clément’s Forbidden Games, 1952) but its extensive usage is mostly because it’s grippingly effective. The debutant director scored a richly-deserved Best New Director award at the 2010 San Sebastian Film Festival, and Carlos César Arbeláez’s The Colour of the Mountains can take its rightful place among those works as a subtle, supremely well-told anti-war parable.