An under-the-radar work of modest resplendence, Alvaro Delgado Aparicio’s Quechua-language “Retablo,” Peru’s current Oscar contender for best international feature film, molds the devastating arc of a son disillusioned with his artisan father for transgressing the masculine norms in their indigenous mountain community.
Nearly silent teen Segundo (Junior Bejar) toils as methodical apprentice to locally revered virtuoso Noé (Amiel Cayo), his biological and creative progenitor, handcrafting retablos — tridimensional portraits made of meticulously sculpted potato-dough figurines encased in a vibrantly painted wooden altar with double doors to conceal its contents.
Nurtured daily at the workshop and in long trips to the nearest town, their bond is one of trust and admiration until Noé finds himself degraded from maestro to pariah by way of virulent homophobia.
Devoid of actorly affectations, the performances imitate the understated expressiveness of the colorful statuettes in that they encapsulate human essence without words. Shirtless men engaging in physical combat, whether on the soccer field or with ritualistic whips, trouble Segundo’s upended outlook on manliness. Bejar’s contrite tears echo his character’s deep-seated pain.
Knowingly framed till its stunningly flawless final shot, the film, a moving retablo in itself, observes Segundo opening, entering or closing doors and windows as he wanders from one tableau to the next. Form and content graciously coalesce in a dance of muted colors through Mario Bassino’s agile camerawork and British composer Harry Escott’s Andean-inspired melodies.
Delgado Aparicio’s reflective direction with a patient eye for lived-in behavior and kinetic symbolism bears artistically ripe fruit in an affectingly measured, near-perfect tour de force that demands serious attention.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 22, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood