How far and what sacrifices can a human being make in the search for bettering his life? And what dimension can such sacrifice have for people who were never forced to embark on journeys through the unknown, risking their lives, only to make ends meet? Mateo Tortone’s film Mother Lode tells the story of Jorge, who leaves his family behind in Lima’s favela to find work in the deep and dangerous mines of the Andes. But like with all good fictional stories, the film tells something universal. Though chances of success are low while the risks are extremely high, this brutal realism film makes tangible and vivid the existential fabric of working-class people who cannot afford not to take risks, not to uproot themselves and to stop believing that by doing so, luck might come their way and change the course of their story for better.
After his taxi – his only tool to make a living – collapses, Jorge, a taxi driver from Lima, takes his changes and goes in search of work at the deep mines of the Andes. He eventually ends up at La Rinconada, at more than 5000 meters altitude. La Rinconada is the highest human settlement in the world, at the feet of the Ananea Grande glacier. It is one of the most hostile environments on Earth, yet thousands of seasonal workers, just like him, travel there every year to find work and luck in the deep mines. They make some money from their basic work, but the lure of going there is finding gold, a fata morgana that promises an end to their poverty and asks everything of them. Some pay with their life.
Jorge is played by Jose Luis Nazario Campos, whose stories of real-life experiences made the basis of Tortone’s film. Arriving there, he enters a world he hardly has any experience with. He sets camp in a rented room with no other qualities than a roof, with no comforts, only a bed and a mess of possibly useful items. It’s freezing cold both in and outside, and there is nothing to do, so people drink, and Jorge starts drinking too. Some of his companions have been at it much longer. The shade of this experience is reflected in their eyes – the eyes of people living a brutalizing life him, of harshness and disillusion.
The town is full of women too, women who come just like the miners out of need. They offer consolation to these workers and the only entertainment, dressed in short-sleeved dresses and sandals, dancing and offering them to drink. As the voiceover narrates, one pays them to tell them their fears. And in exchange for money, they offer the only sense of tenderness available around.
The low temperatures and the rarefied air can be harmful. The water is contaminated with cyanide and mercury. And the usual remedy for the sickness that comes with this is chewing coca leaves.
It is one of the most hostile environments on Earth
Keeping the Devil at bay
This hostile world is filled with superstition and with rituals meant to keep the Devil at bay. «At 13 years of age, when you venture into a mine for the very first time, they tell you that gold comes from the devil», the story goes, a magical interpretation meant to keep luck-seekers reverent towards the power of nature they attempt to challenge and exploit, in a landscape that is anything but human-friendly. Some people die. Some disappear. But there are success stories in following the rituals and offerings needed to the ‘Gringa’, the main vein or the ‘mother lode’. Some of these rituals require human sacrifices too.
The superstitions – mixing catholic beliefs and magical thinking – give a sense of being able to make the unknown somewhat known. They bring an illusory sense of logic and meaning to making it day by day, losing lives, and not finding gold today but perhaps tomorrow. Without them, life here would lose all direction, and hope would soon succumb too.
Luck is an enticing way of believing something better is out there. And time is slow, the days uneventful, the only events being the ones everyone wants to avoid. Jorge’s slowly learns the ropes of his new life while his wife and baby at home continue living the life he misses, with the usual comings and goings and social interactions. He calls them often and sees the baby playing, but the bad network turns all conversations into basic exchanges, deepening the separation between them.
The black and white cinematography adds a layer of rawness to the story. It makes the mud seem wetter, the dirt deeper and the cold almost penetrating through the screen. It gives texture to a life that’s brutal and harsh. And strangely enough, it adds a sense of poetry through the imagery’s pureness and simplicity.
The rituals, the hostile landscape, the magic – by the end of the film, even to the eyes of a non-believer, this world feels ruled by the invisible, possessed. The end scene shows piles of rocks spit out in a flow-through one of the mine entries, like pushed out by an invisible hand through an open mouth. «Listen, this is a story with no end», says the voiceover. ‘They say that in the darkness of a tunnel, names are forgotten’. The struggle is so many people’s struggle. Poverty makes them disposable. They come and go. And in the crippling darkness of the mine, it doesn’t matter who they are. The mountain doesn’t care.