An Italian woman meets a Mexican man. They fall in love, they have a son. And when the relationship ends, like a fairytale in which someone has to return to the mortal world from which he or she came, the woman readies herself and the child to head back to Rome.
Well, Mexico is just as much mortal territory as anywhere else. But the setting of “Alamar,” the Caribbean Sea’s Banco Chinchorro reef, an extravagantly beautiful landscape of clear azure waters and giant skies scattered with floating seagulls, has an incontestable air of the otherworldly.
That’s where Jorge (Jorge Machado) is from, where his father Nestór (Nestór Marín) still lives, and where he brings his five-year-old son Natan (Natan Machado Palombini) for a last bit of time together before he goes off to live thousands of miles away.
In an open-air wooden shack perched out on the water, the men partake in a bright daydream of a life, donning snorkels and diving to spearfish, sleeping in colorful hammocks, cooking seafood stew and befriending a socially inclined egret who walks into their kitchen one day.
Director Pedro González-Rubio has built “Alamar” on a frame of nonfiction — as you might guess by the character names, the people in the film are playing variations on their real life selves, including Roberta (Roberta Palombini), Jorge’s ex and Natan’s mother. And maybe that’s the source of the powerful undertone of love and longing that makes the film so deeply compelling.
Loaded into this drifting idyll of underwater footage, lazy evening conversations about drinking coffee, time spent cleaning the day’s catch and a goofy father-son wrestling match is some considerable emotional weight.
The trip is not just about Jorge’s imparting a sense of cultural identity into his son, it’s about impending separation, about trying to absorb someone’s presence into your very pores because you may never have this kind of time together again. In one scene, at night, still shots (González-Rubio also ably served as the cinematographer) show us a beetle crawling along the wall, the clothes hung to dry from the rafters fluttering from the far edge of a passing storm, and then Jorge, crouched on the floor by Natan’s bed, watching his son sleep.
The impermanence of everything in “Alamar” — from the trip itself, to the family’s relationship with the wild egret, who comes and goes as she pleases, to Natan’s very childhood — is carried over to a final shot of a bubble bursting, and a title card before the credits noting the efforts to preserve Banco Chinchorro as a World Heritage Site.
The last, while not unwelcome, is really the only moment in which the film’s glorious setting supercedes its characters. “Alamar” could easily have been an anthropological travelogue of a simpler, idealized way of life, or worse, could come across as someone’s extended vacation photos, but it’s a far more complex brew, at heart a reminder that time may be fleeting, but that doesn’t make life any less sweet.
“Alamar” is now playing in New York.