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The Wind Journeys

The Wind Journeys (2009)

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teaser The Wind Journeys (2009)

An aging man, Ignacio, rides his burro across a seemingly endless plain. Slung over his shoulder is an accordion, decorated with a pair of pointed horns. Behind him walks Fermn, a shy adolescent boy, unwelcomed by Ignacio but not rejected either. Another man drives up in a jeep and offers Ignacio money to play his accordion at a party given by the mayor. Ignacio bluntly refuses, saying he doesn't play anymore.

So where is he going with his accordion? That's the mystery at the beginning of The Wind Journeys (2009), a film with as many shifting moods, shimmering tonalities, subtle harmonies, and exciting rhythms as the music we eventually hear from Ignacio's accordion and many others.

The Wind Journeys, or Los viajes del viento, was written and directed by Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, who conceived the movie with music very much in mind - not just any music, but the kind known as vallenato, which means "born in the valley." Vallenato arose in the Caribbean region of Colombia, where farmers would ride to different villages singing folk songs that contained the latest news and gossip.

Guerra had won multiple prizes with The Wandering Shadows, his 2004 debut picture, and was looking for his next subject when he heard someone at a film school make a snarky remark about vallenato, which he loved. He resolved to tell a story that would explore and celebrate vallenato in its primary setting, Colombia's rarely filmed northern coast, while offering a realistic portrait of the farmers, peasants, and musicians who populate the region. He succeeded marvelously, greatly helped by his choice of a real vallenato musician, Marciano Martnez, to play Ignacio, a character resembling Martnez himself.

The story is built around Ignacio's lengthy journey with Fermn, whom he accepts as a traveling companion and helper. Their conversations provide the information we need to understand Ignacio's troubled past and uprooted present. He has spent his life as a juglar or troubadour, earning his daily bread with his musical skills. But his wife died recently - we saw her funeral during the opening titles - and this shook him so badly that he felt he could never play again.

Now he must keep a longstanding promise by returning his precious accordion to the master craftsman who made it. During a stopover with Ignacio's brother, Fermn hears hints that the instrument might have a dark side to its history, possibly involving a deal with the devil. But none of this prevents Fermn from pursuing his own dream of becoming a musician, which is what prompted him to start following Ignacio in the first place.

The deal with the devil is quickly revealed as a tall tale, but it resonates because myth and folklore play major parts in the film, which is crisscrossed by the customs, beliefs, and superstitions of its characters. Ignacio and Fermn live in a culture where the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural can be hazy, elusive, or downright impossible to find. This becomes apparent the first time Ignacio decides to play his accordion after all. The occasion is a music festival where the area's best players will compete, alternating between accordion riffs and improvised songs meant to throw opponents off their stride. Ignacio watches carefully as a local champion performs, and suddenly tells Fermn that the champ is cheating by means of sorcery. Sure enough, the challenger abruptly finds himself unable to play or even remain in the arena - so Ignacio steps up to put the cheater in his place.

That's only one of the story's dramatic climaxes. Another occurs when Ignacio has to provide music while two furious men have a fight to the death on a rickety bridge, and another happens when the old juglar is robbed and left for dead. The horned accordion suffers as well, raising fears that Ignacio won't be able to return it even if he does complete the voyage to his mentor's faraway home. Fermn stays loyal through all of this, never losing hope that he too might become a musician. At one point he even gets baptized by a drumming master who grudgingly recognizes his determination, if not any huge degree of inborn skill.

Like many traditional art forms around the world, vallenato has undergone a decline in modern times, losing its purity and popularity as farmers and peasants migrate to urban areas, wandering minstrels settle down, and guitar-playing musicians incorporate elements from other countries and cultures. The Wind Journeys offers generous quantities of authentic son and merengue songs, engagingly played and sung by Martnez and others. Martnez has seen plenty of drama in his own life - when he was thirteen, for instance, his seven-year-old brother was killed by a stray bullet - and although he's a well-known vallenato performer and composer, it's safe to say that he identifies closely with some of Ignacio's experiences.

The Wind Journeys also benefits from a fine supporting cast, led by Yull Nez as Fermn, the teenager whose quiet bravery and tenacity are essential ingredients in the story. Nez never slips into sentimentality or works at being lovable; like other members of the mostly nonprofessional cast, he doesn't merely play his character, he embodies it. Extremely high praise is due to the widescreen color cinematography by Paulo Andrs Prez, which captures a sweeping array of locations - some indoors, many under the open sky - in images brimming with atmosphere. Not surprisingly, Ivn "Tito" Ocampo's original score is also crucial to the movie's effectiveness. Guerra credits a book by Toms Daro Gutirrez H. titled Vallenata Culture: Origins, Theory and Evidence for information that helped him etch an accurate portrait of his subject.

Guerra shot the film along the route of Ignacio's pilgrimage, which stretches many hundreds of miles from the department of Sucre to the far side of the desert on the Guajira peninsula. The characters are as elemental as the terrain where we encounter them, endlessly varied in their personalities and always compelling in their humanity. The Wind Journeys is ultimately a film of air, earth, fire, and water - the basic foundations of our world - and of music, sometimes ringing out proudly and sometimes seeming to pulse below the threshold of hearing, emotionally felt more than physically heard. It's a remarkable movie, and we owe thanks to the people who inspired Guerra to make it by scoffing at the vallenato he loves.

Director: Ciro Guerra
Producers: Diana Bustamante, Cristina Gallego
Screenplay: Ciro Guerra
Cinematographer: Paulo Andrs Prez
Film Editing: Ivn Wild
Production Design: Anglica Perea
Music: Ivn "Tito" Ocampo
With: Marciano Martnez (Ignacio), Yull Nez (Fermn), Agustn Nieves(Ninz), Jose Luis Torres (Meyo), Carmen Molina (Tendera), Erminia Martnez (Mujer guajira)

by David Sterritt

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