No strangers to Sundance, filmmaker/cinematographer Gregory Kershaw and filmmaker/visual artist Michael Dweck (2018’s “The Last Race,” 2020’s “The Truffle Hunters”) are back for this 40th edition with their latest unsurprisingly cinematic, nonfiction study “Gaucho Gaucho.” While the acclaimed duo’s previous docs were set at a Long Island racetrack and in the Italian countryside, respectively, “Gaucho Gaucho” is an “Argentinean Western” (according to the Sundance synopsis) that takes place in the remote plains of that faraway, South American land. And therein lies the rub.
On the upside, “Gaucho Gaucho” is exquisitely crafted, with sumptuous black-and-white cinematography, camera angles framed askew, and eye-catching slo-mo sequences. (Cowboys atop galloping horses makes for one heart-pounding mix.) Not to mention an operatic — at times literally — score. (And Los Gatos’s “La Balsa” is an ear worm for sure.) And yet this heavily stylized, and often overly staged, approach actually ends up overwhelming the story the North American filmmakers have supposedly traveled all the way to the Global South to tell.
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For the title refers to the shrinking community of cowboys and cowgirls (the gaucho gauchos – i.e., the “real” gauchos – as one cutesy little aspiring cowboy puts it) set on defying modernity and sticking to their traditional way of life. Which includes never-ending expressions of spirituality and devotion to Mother Nature and the Heavenly Father alike. We’re privy to a priest (yes, via a low angle shot) counseling a parishioner (who seems to be the voice of the community, making appearances as announcer at both rodeo and radio station). Gauchos place offerings of wine and tobacco out on the range.
Though there’s also the everyday dramas to contend with — including the taming of wild horses and what to do about the ongoing threat from the condors that are devouring the calves. Or the more gender-specific mundane, as a group of old men play cards; the young women sew clothes. A paternal gaucho teaches the aforementioned little cowboy how to sharpen a knife on a rock. But there are likewise some surprises – as when one fiery feminist cowgirl unbudgingly refuses to trade traditional gaucho garb for a school uniform. Or, per the arresting opening scene, when a gaucho appears to use his horse as a bed.
Unfortunately, this nonstop creativity and stretching of creative license with real folks’ lives only serves to distract from the fact that these characters are pretty much anonymous and nearly interchangeable, indistinguishable from the landscape they’ve been part of (and that’s been a part of them) for generations. Which admittedly, in keeping with the “one with nature” vibe, is probably a conscious decision on the part of the expert filmmakers.
Regardless, all this cutting from one perfectly framed shot to the next, never remaining inside a scene long enough so that the hopes and dreams of a flesh-and-blood being might emerge, felt rather like treading in a vacuum; and left this viewer longing to know more about these resilient gauchos — and whether their undeniably genuine love and pride in their culture was likewise performative. Which individuals actually savor the freedom afforded to a man (yes, still primarily men) on the Pampas? Which individuals are “happy” to live in poverty because modern world options aren’t much economically better? Unintentionally, the professional skills of the white outsiders behind the lens, who are never quite able to capture the complete trust of this understandably wary community, tend to act almost as a smokescreen at the expense of the rural protagonists onscreen; who seem only to reflect back what the camera wants us to see.
Which is not the case with, say, something like the Salvadoran-Mexican director Tatiana Huezo’s “The Echo.” That 2023 Berlinale-premiering film, every bit as cinematically crafted and likewise based in a remote Mexican village equally cut off from the modern world, slowly and almost wordlessly weaves its fully-developed figures into the artistic tapestry; while dispensing with any romanticizing. But then again, “The Echo” is void of any mythological cowboys and cowgirls. And the romance of the Western, based on the dream of Manifest Destiny, was always in the eye of the beholder.
“Gaucho Gaucho” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
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