Maybe it was inevitable that a film as nocturnal and sombre as Valley of Souls would bypass British cinemas; maybe it was inevitable it would find a safety net on MUBI, patron saints of the slow and challenging. This naggingly effective drama from writer-director Nicolás Rincón Gille centres on a sidequest unfolding amid the bloody Colombian paramilitary disputes of the 1990s. Don José (José Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo) returns home after a night's fishing to learn his two sons have been taken upriver by forces unknown; after sharing a prayer with his daughter, he picks up his paddle, pushes out his canoe once more, and sets off in search of what are already likely to be no more than corpses. Rincón Gille's background in documentary shows through in the patient study of the leafy yet otherwise impoverished backwaters his protagonist passes through en route - these forming the exact territory on which so many Colombians simply vanished during this grim period. (As such, Valley of Souls tesselates with the many Argentinian works about those disappeared by the military junta, and Patricio Guzman's recent essay films on Chilean history: these are landscapes defined by an absence the filmmakers want us to feel anew.) Yet there's also a trail of clues to be followed: discarded clothing, a familiar football shirt, the bodies of friends and neighbours, scattered like breadcrumbs. Pursuing them into ever more dangerous waters, we find an old, balding, tired and solitary-seeming man, a representative of all those ordinary, peaceable Colombians who found themselves caught up in this senseless conflict, yet one who chooses to swim against the prevailing tide of acceptance. Don José is repeatedly warned that even if he does locate his sons' bodies, it would be forbidden to remove them from the river. A friend puts it in even starker terms: "Stop searching. The river is huge. And they could kill you, too."
At almost two hours and 20 minutes of measured camerawork, this clearly isn't one for anybody seeking Friday night thrills and spills. (Few films released this year will move so closely in step with their lead character.) Yet the pacing allows us time both to puzzle over the stubbornly single-minded José's methodology - just why he insists on immersing himself in varyingly torrid waterways, for starters - and to feel out the guarded mindset of a nation under siege. We get near-sacrilegious glimpses of life carrying on in the face of all this carnage - like a drunken riverbank party, viewed in passing from the lonely José's canoe - but mostly we take away a sense of a people understandably watching their own backs. A deserter at first appears sympathetic and helpful to José's cause before occasioning an arguably gutless betrayal; with a couple of honourable exceptions in the closing stretch, the villagers José approaches for help seem scared of outsiders, and quickly revert to the daily business of keeping their heads down. If it's tough viewing, it's never quite predictable, having been structured in such a way as to generate a succession of surprise discoveries. (That may be a consequence of Rincón Gille's background: he knows when and how to reveal narrative information for it to have the greatest impact.) Like any river, the movie doesn't travel in the straight line you might initially suspect; even when the inevitable happens and José is taken prisoner by men with guns, he finds them all distracted by TV coverage of the Tour de France. That's one of the film's softer touches; another would be the casting of a model-handsome actor to play the first of José's sons. All it takes, though, is a stray, throwaway line, like that uttered by a woman offering sanctuary and the possibility of a reunion of some form ("I also have body parts"), to plunge us back into the darkness of this still-recent historical moment. Valley of Souls never drifts too far or too long from a dolorous paternal duty: the river José travels on comes to resemble the collective tears of a country in the process of crying itself out.
Valley of Souls is now streaming via MUBI UK.