In a final, grueling setpiece that closes out his latest film Monte Adentro, Colombian documentary director Nicolás Macario Alonso follows two fourth-generation arrieros on a day-long trek up the craggy hills of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. The physical strain is palpable as they lead a team of mules laden with furniture toward a secluded mountain farmhouse, battling precarious terrain and unfavorable conditions as they go about completing the day’s work. At nightfall, they finally approach a humble, candlelit cottage where their client greets them warmly and offers to take their drive animals to a nearby pond for water. Then, one of the men inspects the large sofa that had caused the two brothers their greatest difficulty on the drive. He says, “One of the legs is broken; I’ll pay you half.”
From the perspective of any client, it’s a reasonable complaint, but Macario’s patiently observational portrait of the brother’s epic feat of endurance makes it sting that much more. Indeed, it seems anachronistic (almost absurd) for a human being to carry out such feats of physical exertion in a world full of highways, train tracks, and drones – especially for such paltry compensation. But this is the Colombian campesinato, and as Macario insisted on time and time again at a recent question and answer session here at the Guanajuato International Film Festival, he was interested in precisely how his country’s campesino class – the mythical heart of Colombian culture – has been left out of the modern economy of Colombia’s cities.
The truth is that with few exceptions, the tradition-bound life of the so-called gitano brothers could easily be taken from another century: their food is prepared with rudimentary mechanical utensils and cooked on an open flame; their material resources are iron, bamboo, and burlap rather than plastic and stainless steel. Yet Monte Adentro doesn’t merely seek to condemn the materially impoverished conditions of Colombia’s campesinato. In truth, the gitano brothers are fiercely proud of their family’s traditions, despite the fact that their lifestyle is increasingly obsolete and untenable.
But as Macario shows us, the inevitable lure of life in the city is difficult to escape, and one of the brothers must eventually accompany their mother into the city to receive medical treatment as the other stays behind to care for his family’s country house. Once in the city, he parlays his experiences shoeing horses and mules into a career as a cobbler, and like all human beings, he adapts. But Macario leaves us ambivalent about what has been lost and what has been gained, making explicit both the difficulty of life and work in the campo and the tragedy of a world that is rapidly slipping away.
Therein lies the strength of Monte Adentro – Macario avoids falling into naive romanticism about the life of the campesino, while still forcing us to reflect on the importance of tradition and continuity in a world where our connection to the past grows increasingly distant and blurred.