Ciro Guerra’s The Wind Journeys is pretty fantastic. It reminds me a little bit of Theo Angelopoulos, and in some ways like other American-made/foreign-shot smaller films of recent years (Sin Nombre, Manos Sucias).
The Colombian tale is of an accordion troubador, peripatetic after the death of his wife, and with the goal of returning the instrument to the master from whom he received it. He’s followed by a young, hopeful musician (Fermin, played by Yull Nunuez). Guerra’s film is mostly framed in wide shots – lots, and lots of wides. These are almost ridiculously breathtaking. They’re colorful:
Sometimes on such a grandiose scale as to look like miniatures. This is beyond stunning:
Other times it’s the color contrast and sheer depth that pull the viewer in:
The film’s soundtrack is filled with diegetic (only) music and, maybe obviously, plenty of wind. There are several static reaction shots – static in camera and subjects (they remind me of a penchant of Fassbinder’s):
Maybe The Wind Journeys is categorized by some as “arthouse,” but it doesn’t deserve the baggage that that often brings (slow, boring, static). This is an exciting film with something on its mind. In a lot of ways it’s about opposing forces and duels – a necessary component, I think, of both the coming-of-age/manhood theme at play, and also of the cultural celebration that is certainly The Wind Journeys. There’s a cockfight, a fistfight, a machete duel, and an accordion duel.
That accordion duel is unbelievable. It’s a 15 minute long scene! There’s no elaborate coverage. The scene works entirely on the strength of the performances, the energy of the crowd, and of the music. A comment on the IMDb site mentions that Ignacio (Marciano Martinez) is actually a real Vallenato singer. That might explain it. When he comes on-screen to finally perform – after being mostly stoic and taciturn to that point – he’s magnetic.
That handheld camera (maybe it’s on a steadicam but with little movement? I’m not sure. I think it’s handheld) stays wide for the beginning, alternating between current champ and challengers, and leaving a plenty of other frame space for the crowd to occupy:
The scene plays out like the rap battles in an 8 Mile, or even better, like a tense pistol duel. It’s hard to overstate how effective the scene is. The music is infectious and that Guerra just lets it go, playing out in real time, puts us right there in the mix.
Maybe my favorite-shot sequence of the film is when Ignacio is unwillingly recruited to play accordion for a machete fight. It’s perfectly lensed, with Guerra showing off a masterful eye and impeccable timing. Once the duel begins, the director goes out of his way to leave it largely off-screen, or at least to obscure it.
He shoots it over Ignacio’s shoulder, with the fighters out of focus:
He cuts to the reflection on the water below, the wavy, lazy lines, cutting through the fighters and merging them together:
He also shoots the shadows on the wooden bridge. These three shots – and the general strategy of musical accompaniment and avoiding directly framing the dueling duo – makes this feel like a dance. The hard lines are removed by throwing them out of focus, as reflected in water, as soft lines on the hard surface, thereby taking the violence out and instead focusing on the rhythms and movements to the music:
From there, Guerra cuts back to the reflection-
-then to a close-up of a blood splatter:
To Fermin’s reaction-
-to an overhead as the loser falls into the water-
-to another static reaction:
Next, a wideshot. The stabbed man in the water below. But slowly, the “victor” also falls forward, his head awkwardly on the bridge. The shot lingers. No one won:
A low angle wide shot brings Ignacio slowly forward. He feels almost like a harbinger of death here. The storm after the storm. It’s ominous and beautiful:
And the scene ends in the water. The first victim gasps, still alive. He turns towards us as the camera ducks under the water and comes up for air, also fighting for life:
The sequence is amazing not only for avoiding directly showing the fight, and the meaning which that entails, but also for simultaneously avoiding and providing beauty in death. The blood splatter and the final shot are ugly. The overhead, as the victim plunges to the water, is a beautiful red flower blooming in a field of green.