By David Dent
Rural communities that have dissented from the modern world are a bit of a thing in movies recently. Juan Diego Escobar Alzate’s gruelling but strangely lyrical feature debut as director takes on some weighty themes; belief, magic and the rule of the patriarchy being just three of them.
Deep in the Colombian mountains, an isolated community ekes out an existence, under the guidance of El Señor (Conrado Osorio), an angry, deeply devout man, who has recent lost his wife Luz, and who presides over three young women: his daughter, Uma (Yuri Vargas); and two other girls, the equally but more conventionally devout Zion (Sharon Guzman) and Laila (Andrea Esquivel), who have both joined the household at some point. The loss of Luz is palpable; even the tree next to her burial place refuses to blossom.
As the film commences, with a startling montage of the breath-taking scenery of the area (all the external footage has been colour corrected to enhance the vibrancy of the flora in contrast to the griminess of the interiors), Uma comes across, of all things, a cassette recorder. This is the only concession that Alzate makes to the fact that the community, despite their appearances, might be living in contemporary Colombia. Fascinated with the object, Uma presses play and hears a recording of Mozart’s clarinet quintet; it is the first music the young woman has ever heard. Taking it home to her father, he confiscates it as the work of the devil – or does he do this to protect the outside world entering his home? Either way, it’s the start of Uma’s awakening as a woman.
Sometime later El Señor arrives home with a young boy and her mother. He rapes her and she disappears from the picture; the young boy is chained up in a pig pen and declared to be ‘Jesus’ (an extraordinarily poised performance from Johan Camacho). This is not the first time he has declared a second coming; crosses on the hill suggest that other boys had been put in the same place and had died of exposure, although El Señor dismisses them as impostors.
The uneasy family existence continues until Uma falls sick, not long after a liaison with a young man from the village, Adán (Jim Muñoz). Scared that his control over the girls is slipping, El Señor takes matters into his own hands; but when he finds out the nature of his daughter’s sickness, the zealot in him takes over completely.
“Everything that has to do with God is complicated.” A line from the movie which, as much as anything, serves to explain the core of the story. It’s a deeply symbolic film (Alzate has mentioned in interview that he has loaded his work with references to the movies of Jodorowsky, and it shows) which oscillates between beauty and savagery. Osorio’s performance is intense and frightening (while rural in nature, the family setup reminded me a little of the story of how Fred and Rose West ran their home, with the moral compass not so much broken as thrown away, and the women who lived – and died – there finding a sense of normalcy alongside the trauma). The ‘Luz’ of the title, as well as referring to El Señor’s wife, also, rather ironically, means ‘light’; there’s precious little light in the film, which begins pastorally but becomes darker as it progresses.
‘Luz: The Flower of Evil’ is an extraordinary work; one of the most impressive debuts I have seen for some time. The ending is redemptive, but my goodness what you have to go through to get to it.
Luz: The Flower of Evil is available to watch on Shudder on 21st December 2020.