“El Gran Movimiento” is a masterful portrait of capitalism at work

After walking for seven days from the Bolivian mining town of Huanuni, Brother Mamani arrives in La Paz with a group of fellow unemployed miners clamoring for jobs. While wandering the city, Elder struggles to breathe. He wheezes, coughs and almost faints – his lungs, we learn, are degraded by the dust from the tin mine. Eventually, Elder meets Mamá Pancha, his self-proclaimed godmother and a fixture at Rodriguez Market in El Alto. She helps him find work by carrying vegetables; at night, he sleeps in the street, his body broken. El Gran MovementKiro Russo’s second feature, follows Elder’s deteriorating health and the efforts of Mamá Pancha and his friend Max, a prophetic figure and local jester, to cure him.

Speaking of the film, Russo said he is “interested in the traces of time, in this case the traces of time that are captured within the walls of a city…. the working class that led many of the most important revolutions in [Bolivia is] a class that today is increasingly immersed in consumption and the virtual world. Russo is painfully aware of the isolating influence of technology and capitalism, and sometimes desperate for the labor movement’s potential for response. Even so, the characters of El Gran Movement seek moments of solidarity amidst the precariousness of life in La Paz. Despite a rapidly changing cultural landscape, unstable working conditions, illness, and the threat of death, Elder and his companions grow closer, heal each other’s wounds, and find a common revelation in grim circumstances. From defeatism to direct action, from the darkness of nightclubs and mines to the bustling mornings of Rodriguez’s market, Russo’s film expresses how quickly worlds crumble and how quickly new ones are born.

In El Gran MovementIn Russo’s first sequence, Russo explores the cityscape of La Paz, revealing previously hidden phenomena in long zooms and pans. We first see the residential buildings of the city in a slow and detailed zoom that begins with an extremely wide shot and ends with a building under construction. Then we enter among residential buildings, revealing their textures on Super 16mm film – beautiful blues and gray stone, the play of light and shadow, the distortion of glass windows. Next Russo explores Mi Teleferico, the cable car completed in 2019 connecting La Paz to El Alto, starting with a wide shot and working towards a close-up of cars rattling through pulleys. The alarming clank of the cable cars takes on a steady rhythm that turns into a symphony, the first of many excellent pieces composed by Miguel Llanque.

The closer Russo looks, the more he finds that La Paz rests on unstable foundations. In the chorus of cars on a bridge, in a tangle of wires wrapped around a telephone pole, and under layers of torn posters, something lurks. A buzzing current is heading towards a bottleneck, ready to burst. Most lower their heads and cover their ears; Russo hurries to listen.

Oince he presented the city, Russo reflects on the action of the film: a group of unemployed miners stand in a square facing a line of heavily armed police, their chants punctuated by explosions of tear gas canisters. Speaking to another protester, Elder (played by Julio César Ticona, a non-actor who was himself an unemployed miner at the time) describes the challenges of their journey together: cold nights, sore feet, heavy loads. Elder is enigmatic. He wears sunglasses that cover half his face and speaks in a disaffected monotonous voice. Elder was also the protagonist of Russo’s previous film, Viejo Calavera, who followed his life in the mines after the sudden death of his father. As such, unlike his comrades, he benefits from a public forum, a first among his peers.

Elder and his friends spend their first days in La Paz looking for a momentary relief from their suffering. While driving on Mi Teleferico, Elder falls into a misty sleep. His two companions comment on the city passing under them as if they were watching a film. They laugh at big houses and joke that one day they will own houses like these, with swimming pools and maids. Beneath their jokes lies a palpable longing for a restful future or a struggleless past. A lone blue dress floats on a clothesline in the breeze below, lighter than air.

That night, the men plan their next move, pass each other a bottle of booze, and join a crowd watching a WWE wrestling match in sinister colors. They come across a dance floor with flashing lights. Elder is completely transported by the music, but his escape from reality is brief; in the next shot, he is perched precariously on a street sidewalk, asleep. One moment men are free from worry, the next they are vulnerable as children – sometimes they are both.

Russo’s cinematographic techniques immerse us in the setbacks of his characters. Its visual style reflects the meter of their life: slow, but with potential for disruption at any time. One evening, as Elder and his friends sleep in the market street, a shadowy female figure begins to sway in the dark. Another salesman joins her, followed by Elder’s fellow workers, and finally Elder himself. They rise and dance to electronic music in a choreographed sequence, the silhouettes of young and old, healthy and sick, rising for a time from the drudgery of realism. In El Gran Movementamazing moments like these come out of nowhere and then disappear.

Russo’s film contains many sequences that break abruptly from its central action, challenging the viewer’s comfortable position. Western audiences have become familiar with films about workers’ struggles, such as Oscar-winning works nomadland and Rome. These narratives, while ostensibly giving workers a voice, often instead recycle pernicious stereotypes about them: they can be idealized as noble or beautiful, and are rarely fully realized as profound characters. The complex moments that stand between hardship and triumph – the moments that characterize most of our lives – are rarely seen. By introducing a dance sequence whose choreography could be at home in a Broadway musical, Russo points to this failure of representation and imagination. It breaks up the familiar spectacle of toil and, in a telling twist, forces audiences to associate characters like Elder and his friends with theatrical frivolity and heroism.

Oas the main action of the film takes place in the urban center of La Paz, another focal point emerges in the form of Max, Mamá Pancha’s friend, who spends his time on the fringes, allowing him to see things that only a stranger can see. We first encounter Max lying on his back in a wooded area, staring at a canopy of trees. His eyes roll back as he utters incantations. He watches the operations of an open-pit mine in the distance: an excavator plunges its bucket into the earth, and a truck dumps its load elsewhere in a pit. Meanwhile, Max digs the ground with his hands, picking up roots and flowers.

Russo’s montage forces an urgent collision between competing forms of knowledge in La Paz. On the outskirts of town, Max investigates industrial works hidden from public view and in the next moment harvests plants for medicinal use. In time, he brings the plants he picked to Mamá Pancha and wraps them around his arm with a bandage, echoing an earlier photo of a doctor drawing Elder’s blood at a clinic. Competing forces of healing practices and modern medicine, life on the margins and life in the mine, local market and global market models, past and future, light and dark, collide all El Gran Movementclimactic scene. Towards the end of the film, once Elder’s condition has become fatal, Max comes to his bedside in a final attempt to cure his illness. In heavy rain falling on the roof of Mamá Pancha, Max rubs Elder’s chest with a strong liquid and brushes it with a bundle of leaves, then lays his face on Elder and begins chanting incantations. Max is flushed and swaggering; Elder is pale as death. At first, only the faces of the two men are seen, but slowly a point of light emerges, no bigger than a pin. He begins to grow, and between Max and Elder, a dizzying march begins.

The bright spot turns out to be a line of headlights oscillating up and down as the miners go through a tunnel, an image taken, perhaps, from Elder’s memories. Once they pass, a parade of automated labor begins: pipes spurt, lightly oiled wheels spin, and sooty tin stones move on a conveyor belt. Russo then cuts sharply on the surface towards the La Paz market. We begin to see a commercial procession accompanied by a pompous marching air. Vendors roll tomatoes, potatoes, slice squash, weigh meat and exchange bills. Peddlers, policemen, passers-by, homeless bulldozers, elderly women, businessmen and mothers play their part in the pageantry of the streets. The images accelerate until zooming and proliferating crescendo. Eventually, it breaks, and we return to Elder’s bedside.

In this powerful series of scenes, Russo imagines the city as an ecosystem at the crossroads of the mine and the market. When toxins are at the bottom of a food chain, their concentration increases as they progress upward; in the city, a similar type of biomagnification occurs. La Paz, Russo’s editing attests, is built on the back of the tin mine and multiplies its evils.

In the Huanuni Mine, the largest cassiterite deposit in the world, Russo encounters a deep-rooted fundamental industry that is entirely hidden from view. This gurgling enterprise is doubly concealed: first, the work is done underground, and second, like so much work under late capitalism, it is kept at a remarkable distance from those who own and profit from its output. Like invisible toxins, those that capitalize on the work of machines are almost impossible to see. And like thunder or rain, mining equipment works at its own pace. It looks and feels like a force of nature, just as its owners love it – a symphony with a hidden conductor.

Russo’s masterful film exposes the mine as a veiled foundation of life in this South American metropolis and, in doing so, accuses the industry of being at the heart of a decaying global economic system. His techniques – editing, chiaroscuro and expansive sound design – also reveal the ideas that Max is able to find just outside of town. The eternal sources of wisdom and the mechanisms that support capital have one thing in common: they are both out of sight and can only be seen by those with keen vision. But those who see one, see both.

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