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In Alejandro G. Iñárritu's virtual reality film at LACMA, the immigrant's story finds its power from an unlikely place

In Alejandro G. Iñárritu's virtual reality film at LACMA, the immigrant's story finds its power from an unlikely place
"Carne y Arena" is a virtual reality installation by Mexican film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. (LACMA)

The subject of film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s new 6½-minute movie is trauma — the trauma experienced by refugees and immigrants crossing the treacherous deserts of the American Southwest in desperate search of a better life.

As the centerpiece of “Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible),” a three-part installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art designed to be experienced by one visitor at a time, the movie employs sophisticated virtual reality technology. Certainly remarkable, the technology is the draw. But it’s also problematic, wedged between a viewer and the empathy Iñárritu plainly wants to heighten.

Part one of “Carne y Arena” (Flesh and Sand) is an ice-cold waiting room lined with metal benches. Battered shoes are strewn about. Signs instruct an audience member to remove his own shoes and socks, store them in a nearby locker and wait for a buzzer to sound. When it does, you leave the frosty detention chamber and pass through the door into Part 2.

There, technicians wait inside a large, empty room with a floor covered in a thick layer of packed sand. They outfit a visitor with virtual reality goggles and a heavy backpack, and instruct on how the gear works. The movie opens on a lovely desert landscape at dawn.

Digital migrants soon appear. Suddenly, the landscape is engulfed by a dust storm kicked up by a whirring helicopter. Border patrol agents noisily arrive in vans. The scattering migrants, their deportment ranging from terrified to dejected or dazed, are rounded up. The scene is one continuous take, and a viewer moving about chooses his own points of view.

When the scene of apprehension ends, you remove the VR gear and exit into a long hallway. Video screens embedded in the wall feature close-up portraits of immigrants whose ghastly stories inspired Iñárritu’s project. Among the most moving testimonies is one from a careworn patrol agent whose anguished memories of his former job haunt him.

This potent third section redeems the first two, where closely observed but banal manipulation functions at best as the later testimonials’ set-up. Neither the stage set of a chilled detention chamber nor the digitally impressive VR technology puts you into the grim action, except in a superficial way.

The incredible VR illusions can’t escape the bondage of the clumsy gear a visitor wears to see them. (I felt at times like that skunk in the viral video, the one with its head stuck in a soda can.) The third section is empathic because it requires taking an imaginative leap, framed by the unambiguous context that the first two lack.

No closing date has been announced for “Carne y Arena,” nor has a curator. The show, presented most recently at the Cannes Film Festival, is instead attributed to the museum, the filmmaker and a local media company. As institutionally muffled and corporate as that billing sounds, the installation also comes with a hefty admission fee — $25 to $30, reservations required.

Recorded Sept 26, 2016 near Orillia, Canada. Saving a skunk with a Coke can stuck on its head.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Playing indefinitely. (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

christopher.knight@latimes.com

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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