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BERLINALE 2024 Panorama

Review: I Saw Three Black Lights


- BERLINALE 2024: Santiago Lozano Álvarez’s sophomore feature examines the contemporary confluence of spirituality, traditional healing and paramilitary conflict in rural Colombia

Review: I Saw Three Black Lights
Manuel Valenzuela, Delio Angulo and María Estella Quintero in I Saw Three Black Lights

Since the mid-20th century, Colombia has been home to one of the world's most complex contemporary landscapes of guerrilla and paramilitary conflict. Militant movements emerged, in large part, as an organised response to US imperial intervention that backed far-right groups and eventually led to a civil war. Today, these clashes intersect with civilian towns in rural Colombia, where the dark history of Spanish colonialism and slavery has led to Afro-Colombian communities with a vibrant sense of culture, spirituality and heritage but face economic and political threats from many angles.

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In his sophomore feature I Saw Three Black Lights, director Santiago Lozano Álvarez takes up this specific setting and confluence of ideas to explore the entanglement of Afro-Colombian struggles in rural Colombia. The film just enjoyed its premiere in the Panorama section of the 74th Berlinale and is co-written by Lozano Álvarez and Fernando del Razo.

José (Jesús María Mina), an elderly Afro-Colombian man who lives along Colombia’s Pacific coast, is visited by the corporeal ghost of his son, Pium Pium (Julián Ramirez), who was violently killed by an armed militant faction. Warned by his son that he will soon die as well, José sets off into the jungle to find a quiet spot to become his final resting place. After being warned by a paramilitary group not to enter the jungle again, the town’s secrets are revealed as he wanders and engages further with the local residents.

With an understated but tender performance by Mina, José is frequently found at vigils and rituals warmed by candlelight. Possessing the ability to sense hidden aspects of the world around him, he is deeply in touch with herbal medicine and healing practices, holding a unique place in the community. He and ancestral figures look into and past the camera, soundlessly confronting the viewer during spiritually driven — but never mystical — sequences that combine those living and those in the afterlife.

The protagonist’s small village is filled with residents whose sons and daughters were either killed — like Pium Pium — or disappeared by paramilitary groups who operate in the jungles of Colombia. Small-scale (and likely illegal) gold panning efforts reveal long-buried dead bodies and the remnants of violence that are brushed away by the silencing of civilians. However, the meandering narrative is, at times, too fuzzy and cryptic to gain a strong sense of the film’s thematic objectives, with minimal dialogue to fill in the rest. After the film shifts away from Jose’s fascinating venture into the jungle, it loses the focus necessary to grasp on to his everyday life.

The film excels most potently in its visual style, with cinematographer Juan Velásquez bringing an emotive warmth to each scene despite the film being colour-graded toward cooler tones. Combining gentle marimba with the dull pitter-patter of rain and chirping of birds, sound designer Jose Miguel Enríquez crafts the reverberating jungle around José. Vocally driven music by Nidia Góngora, in which a singer lyricises about mangroves, further grounds I Saw Three Black Lights in the human connection to nature — perhaps even more so than the story itself.

I Saw Three Black Lights is produced by Colombia’s Contravía Films in co-production with Mexico's Malacosa Cine, France’s Dublin Films, Germany’s Autentika Films and Colombia’s Bárbara Films. International sales are managed by Germany’s Arthood Entertainment.

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