Subtle Still Life

in 53rd Visions du Réel Nyon

by Massimo Lechi

Among the many valuable first feature films that had their world premiere in Switzerland at the 53rd edition of Visions du Réel, the Spanish-Peruvian co-production Steel Life (Vida Férrea, 2022) clearly stood out for the precision of its cinematic trajectory and for the beauty of its images. Manuel Bauer’s absorbing debut is in fact solid documentary filmmaking, powerful political cinema with a humanistic flair: the kind of perfectly crafted piece of work that can be admired for its visuals as much as for the clarity of its perspective and for its director’s deep honesty and no-nonsense approach to the medium. A good and relevant story – almost a cautionary tale – brilliantly told: something rare these days.

Conceived as a finely paced road or railroad-movie, Steel Life follows the itinerary of the Ferrocarril Central Andino, a long and old mine train, whose shaky wagons precariously descend from the heights of the Peruvian Altiplano – the altitude there is around 5000 meters – down to the Pacific Ocean, carrying tons of precious metal powders. From the Andes to Lima, from the dark open-pit mine of Cerro de Pasco to the rich port of Callao, from some of the most underdeveloped and polluted areas of Latin America to the busy roads of a relatively modern 21st century capital, we watch the train climb mountains and cross canyons and shanty towns, making its way through a country plagued and disfigured by the greed of man. At every stop, we are introduced to a new character, whose story helps us grasp a fragment of Peruvian history and discover the life conditions of a different social stratum. Five stories, five characters (four men and a woman), five lives all directly impacted by metal mining: a gloomy social worker trapped into a no man’s land where people simply cannot breathe, a nurse who silently but stubbornly fights against the merciless local mining company, a passionate railway worker, a cook whose restaurant is located near an ancient train station turned culture center and a happy former football champion who now works in the port, at the very end of the journey of every shipment of metal, and of Steel Life itself.

Bauer, a respected Peruvian film and TV editor based in Spain whose credits include Melina León’s much-celebrated Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre) and Álex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta), worked on the project for more than a decade, following mine trains back and forth, interviewing fellow compatriots along the winding railroads, mapping the social inequalities at the core of his melancholic “país minero” and researching thoroughly the systematic exploitation of its land and of its people. The final result is the complex cinematic exploration of a painfully uneven social and economic landscape which manages to strike the viewer as both a serious study on the ambiguities of the so-called progress and as a compassionate meditation on the paradoxical situation of a country that sees itself inexorably crawl back into utter resignation, poverty and ignorance while giving away all of its natural resources in order to keep a place into the vicious circle of world capitalism.

In Nyon, Steel Life won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best First Feature Film presented in the International Feature Film Competition or the Burning Lights Competition “for the original and masterfully crafted cinematic depiction of contemporary Peru within a subtle and thought-provoking critique of the social injustices of the capitalist system”.

Massimo Lechi