‘Last Stop Before Chocolate Mountain,’ A Wondrous Cinematic Depiction Of Bombay Beach

‘Last Stop Before Chocolate Mountain,’ A Wondrous Cinematic Depiction Of Bombay Beach

Multidisciplinary artist Susanna della Sala has come up with an oneiric documentary that captures the essence of Bombay Beach, a once abandoned town in the harsh California desert, where art heals people in the most unexpected ways. The picture has conquered already some of the most prestigious cultural kermesses, such as the Locarno Film Festival, the Festival dei Popoli in Florence (where it won three awards); and it was shortlisted for the Italian Academy Award David di Donatello in the Best Documentary category.

The visual storytelling is not that of a conventional sociological reportage, it conveys the mood and soul of a star and stripes Shangri-La where debris is transformed into vital energy. The remnants of a man-made disaster go through a metamorphosis allowing a community to flourish thanks to the invigorating power of inventiveness. Last Stop Before Chocolate Mountain, follows the endeavours of a British matriarch, a retired bank robber, an evicted artist from L.A. and an Italian aristocrat, who open the doors to a magical realm, and an alternative way of living.

The ghost town in the middle of the desert is characterised by its decadence, as its inhabitants confront dystopia with resilience to survive. This is why often the press has covered Bombay Beach’s storytelling through a poverty porn narration. This is not the case of Susanna della Sala’s magic surrealist approach, she coalesces the bygone times and the current spirit of the town with chimerical sensitivity. The filmmaker remarkably reconstructs the history of this location with archival footage. She chronicles how, during the Fifties, Bombay Beach was a popular beach-going destination. Its decline began in the Seventies, due to a warning that the salinity of the lake — called Salton Sea — would no longer sustain wildlife. During the Eighties, what used to be a luxury resort turned into a godforsaken place. But since 2016, with the founding of the Bombay Beach Biennale, this forgotten land acquired new vital force. In fact, in 2018 an article in The Guardian explained how the place was “enjoying a rebirth of sorts with an influx of artists, intellectuals and hipsters who have turned it into a bohemian playground.

Art is the language that unites this populace. All members of the community share their wisdom. The documentary captures the dialogues of the locals, that are so philosophically significant that they seem scripted. The breathtaking setting and the mesmerising clothes worn by the people, are so whimsically hypnotic that they also seem established in advance. But that is not the case. Everything is authentically drenched in wonder. The way Last Stop Before Chocolate Mountain effectively captures this element of marvel is the outcome of a filming process that lasted almost a year, during which the crew followed the people who are included in the film day and night. Thus, the intimate relationship established with the community has been crucial to convey the multifaceted humanity on screen.

The documentary epitomises the American Dream. Those who currently choose to live in Bombay Beach thrive by rising from the ashes of ruins. In the 19th century the Gold Rush triggered Americans to go West, to seek better opportunities by sourcing precious metals. Today, the 21st century’s hopeful wanderers arrive in Bombay Beach seeking universal human values that provide a sense of inclusion and acceptance.

Final Grade: B

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