Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Valley of Souls is streaming on Mubi.

“We’re just fishermen. We’ve done nothing wrong.” A young man is intent on returning to his family, notwithstanding the murderers blocking his way. His naivete will reverberate throughout a taut, tragic drama, set amidst the Colombian civil war and the horrors inflicted on the country’s peasant population by far-right paramilitaries.

The man’s older, wiser friend José knows better, and fears the worst when he finds that his two sons have been abducted the same night. Deeply religious, José resolves to find his boys’ bodies, give them a proper burial and free their souls; but he will be putting his own life in peril. “It’s forbidden to remove bodies from the water,” he’s warned. “They’ll chop you up.”

With his feature debut, writer/director Nicolás Rincón Gille follows the path of his trilogy of documentaries on Colombian rural life, particularly The Embrace of the River (2008) in which he collected testimonies regarding paramilitary violence along the Magdalena River, used as a dumping ground for victims.

This too is set on the Magdalena and is wholly cast with non-professionals, who infuse the film with resonant authenticity. Chief among them is Arley de Jesús Carvallido Lobo, effortlessly occupying the screen as the wiry, indomitable José, whose grief-laden quest plays like a journey though the Inferno.

Valley of Souls (2019)

Gille opens with intimations of the slow cinema that has bogged down a fair few films from this region. But there’s charm in José’s straw hat and football shirt with his name on the back (he’ll later, poignantly, find a similar shirt in the river), and the flourish of rage with which he hacks with his machete at the paramilitary graffiti on his home signals the tension that will drive the film forward.

There are echoes of other jungle odysseys. José’s ease on the water evokes the shaman of Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015) and the equally resourceful, if less sympathetic loner of Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos (2004); while the fisherman’s encounters along the way – with a deserting paramilitary foot soldier tormented by the souls of victims, the terrifyingly polite commander whose mercy may depend on the result of a cycle race, the woman whose ledger of the dead includes body parts – isn’t far removed from Martin Sheen’s hellish, surreal tour through Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Valley of Souls merits those associations. Gille’s script and direction are lean and grimly effective, enriched by DoP Juan Sarmiento’s ravishing lensing and his unlikely star’s heartbreakingly noble performance.

Further reading

Embrace of the Serpent review: a true Amazonian treasure

An anthropological adventure and character mystery, poignant condemnation of colonialism and teemingly rich tribute to a lost world, Ciro Guerra's monochrome heart-of-darkness fable is a multitudinous stunner, writes Demetrios Matheou.

By Demetrios Matheou

Embrace of the Serpent review: a true Amazonian treasure

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy