“You’ll need a drink afterwards” was the main takeaway from the introduction to VALLEY OF SOULS, director Nicolás Rincón Gille’s first fiction feature. Set in the Colombian countryside, it follows one man on his journey to reclaim the bodies of his two sons, killed and dumped in the river by a far-right paramilitary group. It spans days and kilometres as Jose – a seasoned fisherman – traverses the massive body of water, taking on what appears to be an impossible task.
Arley De Jesús Carvallido Lobo is the film’s soul as Jose. We never leave his side as he meticulously scans his surroundings and hides from passing militiamen. There’s little that’s showy about his performance, but he instead seems driven by something both primal and spiritual, a need to find his sons for a human sense of closure and a Christian sense of laying them to rest properly. His face rarely cracks, and his energy comes from somewhere deep and paternal: there’s no uncertainty that he’d sooner die trying than return home without his boys. It’s all in Lobo’s performance, his dependable demeanour and calm conviction gives Jose a kind of familiarity, as if his reaction to the news of his family is what all of us would do.
Alongside this narrative is the constant hint of menace. It’s easy in the more languid passages of VALLEY OF SOULS to forget about the actual act of murder which took place to set the story in motion, but it’s always on the fringes as Jose travels downstream. Across the film’s 137-minute runtime, Jose encounters paramilitary groups and their victims, sometimes observing the groups from afar as they patrol or harass villagers. There is no grand political statement except the film’s focus on the cost of the turmoil that’s been going on in Colombia for decades, and how it makes entire swathes of the country live in fear. Two sailors Jose keeps encountering refuse to help him because retrieving bodies from the water isn’t allowed. Their fear is tangible, and what’s more, it’s existentially sad to know so many bodies are found in the river that rules and customs have been set up regarding them.
The river itself is as memorable as Jose. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Juan Sarmiento G, the irony isn’t lost that this massive provider of life is teeming with bodies of the dead. It’s undoubtedly peaceful as Jose drifts down the water, gliding softly against its smooth flow, gently breaking the surface to paddle. It is as if the horrors are happening to nature also. The land is stained with blood, and this massive artery is polluted by the products of violence, acting as reminders of what happened to his sons every time Jose passes another corpse.
Despite its impressionistic pacing, VALLEY OF SOULS becomes exhausting, in large part due to Lobo’s increasing sense of hopelessness. His skin glistens with sweat as he digs up unmarked graves in the hope of finding them, taking all night. The film is an aimless journey in search of an unknown destination, which in itself makes for an uneasy experience. In essence, you experience Jose’s emotions with him, wondering what will happen if he never finds them, the miracles it would require when they could be anywhere. It’s a harrowing watch, when death has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen, to people who take no interest or have any influence on the hows or whys.
Sad films have a catharsis to them – everyone appreciates a good cry – but VALLEY OF SOULS is on another level of human sadness, one where its central father and fisherman cuts a lonely figure trying to put something right – if that is even possible. It’s majestic in its drive, believing there is a worthy purpose to Jose’s journey that makes it a rewarding watch, one where we empathise and mourn, utterly confused by the cruelties we enact on one another.