Urubú (2019)

‘Urubú’ is the Spanish word for a black vulture, and in Alejandro Ibáñez’s film of the same name, an albino urubú, never before captured on camera in the wild, has become the white whale of photographer Tomás (Carlos Urrutia). So obsessed is he with shooting one through his tele-lens that he is prepared to drag his wife Eva (Clarice Alves) and his young daughter Andrea (Julie D’Arrigo) halfway up the Rio Negro from Manaus to follow up a rumoured sighting of the bird, even at a time when a spate of mysterious disappearances and deaths along the river has even the locals spooked. The family will travel upstream, with Tomás so fixated on his work that he barely pays Eva and Andrea any attention at all, much to Eva’s annoyance. Tomás will notice, though, when Andrea disappears entirely – and his frantic search for her with Eva will lead both parents to the heart of darkness, as this family is torn violently apart. 

Ibáñez, who directed and (with Carlos Bianchi and Alejandra Heredia) co-wrote Urubú, is also son of the late Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. There is an opening text dedication to the memory of Serrador, and indeed the whole film plays as an homage to Serrador’s own best known film Who Can Kill A Child? (¿Quién Puede Matar a un Niño?, 1976). Near the film’s beginning, in a Manaus restaurant where we notice that a young boy is working as waiter, Tomás and Eva have dinner with a professor (José Carabias) leaving a bored Andrea to wander around. She is distracted by a film playing on the restaurant’s television – and the film is Who Can Kill A Child?. Shortly afterwards, in scenes that evoke the beginning of Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981), the family boards a boat at Manaus’ riverside wharf as they set off on their expedition with a small crew – and again, young boys are seen labouring at the dock. These glimpses of casual child exploitation are laying thematic groundwork for what will follow, and lead up to a moment much later when Tomás will actually utter the words: “Who can kill a child?”. In the end this will come to seem like a reimagining, or even an actual sequel, to Serrador’s original film – with a bit of Fabrice Du Welz’s Vinyan (2008) thrown in for good measure. For here, children are pitted against adults, in an intergenerational clash that is also an uprising and a kind of revenge.

Urubú ends as Who Can Kill A Child? began – with grim statistics on child abuse and death in poverty and war. One might ask why Ibáñez felt a need to revisit the themes of his father’s film – but perhaps the more pertinent question is why the mistreatment and mortality of the world’s youngest humans has changed so little in 43 years. At least in Ibáñez’s disturbing fantasy, if not in reality, the kids can get their own back on a negligent, unjust world of grown-ups. By referencing the jungle excursions of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Ibáñez exposes the essential savagery of humanity, in any decade and at any age – so that even the generation after Serrador is still having to address the same old issues and deliver the same old warnings.

© Anton Bitel