A muted gray sky.
A frozen marsh, snow-capped.
A bitter wind.
A rotting cottage.
A pair of hands with nine fingers.
This is Fogo, an island off the eastern coast of Canada, home to several small communities. It’s one of these unnamed communities that serves as the centerpiece for this film, a dissolving township with a depleted population. As most of the residents have moved on and resettled elsewhere, several remain behind, struggling with how to subsist on the island henceforth. The loose narrative follows three of these men, solemn mirrors for the crumbling state of Fogo itself, as they occupy themselves with menial tasks and daily life.
Fogo straddles a wispy line between documentary and fiction. Although scenes are scripted they unfold in naturalistic ways, with nothing that happens serving or advancing any plot. Instead much of the film is given to showing the characters alongside the harsh landscape and decaying architecture. Conveying the ambience and environment of the island are central; the frozen terrain and decrepit buildings are as hopeless as they are inhospitable, and the interiors on the island are just as barren as the exteriors.
Director Yulene Olaizola’s composition and cinematographer Diego García’s photography serve the film extremely well in this regard. Each frame is mournful and the muted palette reinforces the bleakness of the countryside, and Olaizola’s command of minimalism keeps things from dragging. Even the most mundane shots appear dynamic, possessing a kind of energy that some minimalist films lack. Through the use of long shots, slow camera movement, and sparse editing, the smallest of actions are given immense narrative weight: the chopping of a tree, the peeling of a potato. Scenes of deterioration are boosted by the haunting music of Pauline Oliveros, pulled from her The Roots of the Moment album. Combined with the sincerity of the performances from its non-actors, Fogo is an extremely somber and affecting portrait of decay and hopelessness.