Venice 2021 review: Mother Lode (Matteo Tortone)

“Mother Lode is an absolute triumph in both its heartfelt content and stunning execution.”

The first words the audience hears when venturing into Mother Lode, the ambitious social drama directed by Matteo Tortone, are “this isn’t one story, there are many.” The omnipotent narrator makes it clear that despite following a single man’s journey, this film is looking at the plight of a much broader group of individuals, with the main character only being a surrogate for their experiences. Classifying this film is a challenge since Tortone is casting such a wide social net; the most appropriate description would be to call it a combination of brutal social realism and slice-of-life drama, which work together to tell this fascinating story of the extent to which many will go in order to survive. Filmed in stunning black-and-white, which creates a very simple but striking image of contemporary Peru, whether it be the bustling streets of Lima or the splendour of the Andes mountains, the film is a poignant ode to the working class, particularly those who seek out better opportunities either to improve their own standing in the world or to make life better for their families. Told with precision and an honesty that indicates that Tortone is a major new talent with a distinct authorial voice, Mother Lode is an absolute triumph in both its heartfelt content and stunning execution.

Fact and fiction are blurred in Mother Lode, which focuses on the tendency of desperation to breed innovation within those who are not given the benefit of leading luxurious lives, and instead have to work for the most meagre resources they need to live. Taking place within a community that is willing to do whatever it takes to provide for themselves and their loved ones, the film weaves a compelling tapestry of life in contemporary Peru and the people who populate it. Throughout the film we are witness to the journey of a young man as he tries to make a living – at first we are immersed in the character’s hometown, the never-ending working-class neighbourhoods of Lima, where small houses are littered across the mountain, extending into the horizon as far as the eye can see. It creates a disquieting image of the urban landscapes which are populated by a multitude of lives, the ones that the narrator spoke about in the film’s brief prologue. There is a sharp contrast between the wide spaces of the urban streets, in which the protagonist worked as a taxi driver, and the narrow labyrinths of the isolated mines deep in the mountains in which he is soon employed. Yet he navigates both in his relentless attempts to survive, doing whatever needs to be done to ensure he can provide for his family, who are his only reason for risking his life in such dangerous terrain.

While clearly designed as a story about the Peruvian working class, the film approaches this broad subject by filtering it through the perspective of a single individual, a man who represents this segment of the broader population. It leads to an incredible performance from José Luis Nazario Campos, who takes on the central role of Jorge. The young actor’s expressivity and authentic understanding of the social and cultural milieu informing the film is absolutely fascinating and lends the film the gravitas it needs to be convincing. The film emphasizes the concept of identity, with Jorge being a young man who has struggled to define himself – he has worked a variety of menial jobs, all in service of his need to survive in the immediate moment rather than looking towards the future. Over the course of the film, we follow him as he goes on a journey of self-discovery, learning about himself through interacting with a variety of other people. Each conversation the protagonist has with another individual serves to add depth and nuance to a film that is already filled with fascinating character-based details. They aid in the construction of this striking but beautiful tapestry that ventures deep into the root of humanity through telling the story of many people, facilitated by the work-based expeditions of one man and his metaphysical journey of self-actualization.

The Peruvian Andes stand as a formidable obstacle for the main character, who intends to travel to the peak in the hopes of finding work amongst the miners there. However, throughout the film Jorge (as well as the audience) learns the sobering lesson that reaching the top of the mountain doesn’t necessarily equate to success or having overcome adversity. The haunting stories of miners that met their fate in those cramped tunnels loom heavily over the main character’s journey, and he soon comes to realize that it’s not reaching the peak that matters, but rather being able to descend from it afterwards, since it proves one managed to brace the hostile conditions and live to tell the tale, which leads to the film’s stunningly melancholic crescendo. It all becomes part of this film’s hypnotic approach that invites us to become lost in this world, seeing it through the unique perspective of a young man trying to make sense of the changing social and economic situation that exists in his country. It represents the dilemmas of many working-class people, who continue to demonstrate courage in a world that is increasingly bleak and colourless, but where their hope propels them forward. As the narrator says in his parting remarks, Mother Lode is “a story with no end,” serving as a profound manifesto on the tenacity and resourcefulness of the working class and their ability to show resilience and optimism, regardless of the dire conditions that continue to encircle them.

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