Mother Lode straddles a few different lines in its depiction of the grueling lives of gold miners in the mountains of Peru. For all practical purposes, it is a fiction film, co-written and directed by an Italian, Matteo Tortone, featuring black-and-white cinematography by Swiss photographer Patrick Tresch, and filmed on location in Peru — Lima and La Rinconada specifically. Despite having the pedigree of a European art film, it also takes on some of the attributes of documentary. The film follows the ostensibly fictional story of Jorge, a character portrayed by non-professional Jose Luis Nazario Campos, but many of the film’s narrative beats are taken from Campos’ real life, relayed to Tortone and co-writer Mathieu Granier in detailed conversations. It’s a heady mix of modes — emblematic perhaps of filmmakers like Kiarostami who also freely melded fiction and non-fiction — rendered here in richly textured details and starkly beautiful images. We first meet Jorge in Lima, struggling to make ends meet as a pedicab taxi driver. Tortone mounts a camera at the front of the bike, giving us an up-close and personal look at Jorge’s frustrating journeys; the bike frequently breaks down, causing him to leave customers stranded and being forced to push the cumbersome object back to his home overlooking the city. Determined to make some money to support his wife and young child, Jorge sets off to become a miner, flush with tales of striking it rich. Of course, once he arrives at the mine, the crushing reality of the dangerous job quickly becomes clear.
Tresch’s photography alternates from the bright lights of the city and chalky dirt roads of Jorge’s mountainside home to the lush, natural light of the countryside as Jorge makes the journey to the Andes mountains. La Rinconada is filmed in dramatically different fashion; trips into the mine are pitch-black save for a single light source and the dingy, gray streets surrounding the work site which house dilapidated bars and brothels. Jorge is introduced to women and alcohol, as well as the superstitions of his fellow workers. Everyone is desperate for money, leading to tall tales about the Devil and even human sacrifices to “appease” the mine. Dramatic, omniscient voice-over narration opines on the nature of good and evil, and how the lust for hold corrupts absolutely.
Tortone, in conversation with CineEuropa’s Vassilis Economou, says the film is about “the relationship between men, the Devil, and gold.” It’s ultimately this juxtaposition between harsh, quotidian reality and the more broadly mythopoetic that destabilizes the film. Indeed, Mother Lode is at its best when it focuses on the experiential details of Jorge’s day-to-day existence. Detours into metaphor and magic realism feel like intrusions from a different, less interesting film, frequently underlining or otherwise hammering home points already made clear by its visuals. Specificity is key, and while Tartone wants his film to be about all workers in a broad sense, it’s better when it focuses on Jorge specifically. Costa and Tarr have managed to make films about poverty and misery while still imposing their own sensibilities onto the material, something Tartone has yet to master. Still, these slight misgivings aside, Mother Lode is a strong film, eye-popping to look at and firm in its pro-worker convictions. It’s a fine debut for him.
DIRECTOR: Matteo Tortone; CAST: —; DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement Plus; STREAMING: September 1; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 26 min.
Originally pblished as part of DOC NYC 2022 — Dispatch 3.