This strong debut from director Carlos César Arbeláez hasn't been released yet in its home country, Colombia. It is only beginning to crawl around the festival circuit; Film Movement scooped it up rather quickly. I'm glad they did, I hope they're able to put it in as many US theaters as they can. A war story where war is off-screen, the film centers on childhood innocence, capturing breathtaking mountainside cinematography that would be scrumptiously suited to the big screen.
In remote Colombian villages, families of farmers who peacefully tend the land are forced to choose between military forces and the guerrilla rebels endlessly fighting outside their homes. Manuel, pushing his eighth birthday, has witnessed horrors no kid should be subjected to, the worst being psychological -- a constant fear that dad will soon be carted away to the fight. While milking a cow or working the land, if dad sees the approaching rebels, he hides, and mom tells the group he's gone for the day in town. The rebels tell her to make sure he gets to an upcoming meeting. He never makes it to a meeting in town.
Manuel has his own obsession -- soccer -- and he gets together with other school-skipping kids for constant play. The kids have designed a sort of league, Manuel thinking his team can take on anyone around the village. When his parents celebrate his eighth birthday, Manuel gets a gorgeous professional looking soccer ball in place of the slosh ball they've been kicking around. The kids on his team are amazed and can't wait to give it a whirl. Trekking off for a jaunt of sport, they note the guerrillas already camped in the mountainside location where they play. They decide it might be best to wait until later.
The villages are trying to prosper and live normally, keeping order and hope for all the families. Though the last school teacher was chased off by the rebels, a new hire is excited about the possibility of educating these kids. She settles into her living quarters in the school, lining up all the kids to meet them, first through fifth grade. She puts up with political graffiti on the side of her school and the fact that when she's not around, the building is used for rebel meetings. In her youthful zeal she has no idea she's walking into a hopeless situation.
When a neighbor loses grip on a cow running through the soccer field, all will know in no uncertain terms that this field has been recently mined. Years ago, the military used the place strategically and the rebels need to make sure they cannot land a chopper or walk here again. In a turn of events, the new soccer ball will sit there at the end of the field under a large tree, with the children unable to pick it up for fear of being blown to bits. It sits there for days as they make plans on how to get it. It becomes an obsession, the need to get that ball that glares at them from the end of the field.
Being kids, having that more reckless mentality of a child's mind, they will no doubt attempt to get it. There are several intense, gruelling scenes of Manuel and his friends hanging from the tree, navigating the minefield in order to grasp that childhood object of desire. At one point Manuel's albino friend loses his much needed glasses trying to grab the ball. It's awful to think of him facing his parents -- the loss of glasses being a secondary crime to him being in the minefield in the first place.
The soccer ball and a view of life through Manuel's eyes are center at the heart of this story. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven, though in the Iranian masterpiece the brother's search, that thing in jeopardy, was his sister's shoes. The Colors of the Mountain doesn't get the chance to be as tender as a Majidi film though, because there are always rebels on the land, explosions in the distance, helicopters overhead -- the interruption of normal life by an encroaching war that will not go away. This is a hard, stern look at the life of war-torn children who can no longer grasp at even the simplest of life's pleasures.