Tag Archives: Brazil

New Directors/New Films: El Planeta, Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash), Azor, Madalena, All the Light We Can See, and Liborio

Now that the 50th installment of New Directors / New Films is over I can finally resume reviewing. Having missed all of last year’s due to the pandemic (and many of the movies making their debut have not even made it to the initial stages of distribution) I didn’t want a repeat, So, to compensate, out of the 27 feature-length movies that came out, I managed to capture a little over half of them (while still seeing both recent virtual cinema releases and the foray into classics which I have yet to write about, so my apologies).

Trailer for Liborio, courtesy from Rotterdam FF

To understand a movie like Nino Martinez Sosa’s Liborio you would need to have read extensively and/or studied Dominican history. Yours truly lived for almost two decades in the Dominican Republic and while I can recall most events that transpired in the country’s 500-plus year life, the life of Olivorio Mateo Ledesma, better known as Papa Liborio, was not one of them. I don’t know why; perhaps my Dominican History teacher opted to graze the chapter. In short, the life of Papa Liborio, today, has become somewhat obscured to the point that it’s mostly a curiosity known to only the old guard and a few erudite.

(His)story goes that Liborio (Vicente Santos), a simple man of the fields, disappears in a hurricane in 1908. When he returns several years later, he is a markedly changed man. His return, seen in itself as a miracle, now sees Liborio speaking in prophetic terms, performing miracles, and carrying within and around him the glowing, magnetic aura of a new Messiah. Word of his abilities as a shaman and spiritual leader makes its way around the country. Followers in search of meaning and enlightenment arrive. Eventually, during the US occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916, Of course, as it happens with many fringe cults — because Martinez Sosa never shies from presenting Liborio’s compound as anything but a cult run by a shyster with no actual powers — they become a target of American interest, with disastrous results.

A difficult topic to touch because of its inscrutability, Liborio comes across a bit of history lesson speckled with a lens into a time when the Dominican Republic was emerging from its former Haitian occupation and becoming its own country. All of its action takes place in an isolated portion of the country — San Jose de las Matas, with its gorgeous scenery — so in many ways, the people of Liborio are a community lost in time and faith and innocence of the outside world. Martinez Sosa displays much respect for his take on Papa Liborio but never turns his film into a hagiography. Quite the contrary, while his community truly believes (to this day) that Liborio was a holy man, the movie winks at us by letting us in on the secret that he’s really just another clever man able to sway the masses and turn rabbit tricks that look like miracles.

In another continent and time, women are succumbing to reveries and locked in a state of suspended femininity in Ainhoa Rodriguez’s Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash) The first shot gives us two women, one of them the movie’s central character Cita, drunk in euphoria, high from a wedding. The camera never intrudes but lets this moment of drunken bliss play itself out. Cita, one of the women, embraces the other, unnamed, and both fall to the ground, laughing. Later on, Cita will play a recorded message in an old cassette recorder to remind herself that one day soon she will see a mighty flash that will quite frankly, obliterate everything from existence.

That mighty flash never arrives, but that’s not the case. The women of Ainhoa Rodriguez are stuck in what seems to be a forgotten place in Spain where nothing happens. Extremadura stands in for this sense of isolation, which Rodriguez films in mostly muted colors. The entire look of the movie conveys a sense of the very essence of life sucked out of its few remaining residents, and of these, a strong divide appears between the women and the men. The men are mostly non-entities who simply exist as ghosts of their former selves.

teaser trailer from Destello Bravio (A Mighty Flash)

The women, however, still behave as if they were in pageantry and it was the 19th century. Female churchgoers criticize Cita for not coming to church in a glittery gold dress she wore to a wedding. Another expresses her fear of her dead husband. An early gathering yields to vaguely threatening noises that not everyone hears. Later on, another gathering of women peaks in early arguments that dissolve into a state of sexual reverie, and the lingering question is, what exactly is going on here? I would simply point at a place that has lost its sense of purpose. When all you have is frustration, despair, and passions that have been unresolved, you get the sexually and emotionally starved female ghosts of Ainhoa Rodriguez’s intriguing movie pregnant with desire.

The women in Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta are in a similar state of despair, but Ulman, instead of having their fabric of reality melt into a living nightmare of stasis and unfulfilled lives, prefers to take the route of a comedy of manners with a hint of something rotten underneath. That something reveals its ugly head but gradually. Ulman tells her story with enormous patience and a keen eye that observes its two leads, herself and her mother Ale Ulman.

The start of El Planeta posits Maria (Amalia Ulman) and Leonor (Ale Ulman) as women trapped by their own inability to be self-sufficient, depending on the kindness of unseen others. Maria is a make-up artist trying to land a good job, but her financial situation doesn’t allow her to travel outside Gijon where she lives with Leonor. An early scene has her finagling the price of sexual favors, which sets up the stage for something unsaid.

Meanwhile, she and her mother go on spending sprees, living the high life, acting as if they have it all when in fact, Leonor has been left destitute following a bitter divorce. Ulman slowly reveals the vapidity behind the appearance of glamor, and I kept being reminded of a much softer version of Midnight Cowboy without the extreme grittiness. Where the two men in that movie lived in squalor and followed a pipe dream that was already collapsing at the seams and turning into a living nightmare, El Planeta remains serene, almost as light as a bubble, until Ulman rips the rug from under our feet and we are left not just with an abrupt ending, but a sense that Leonor, the true narcissist in the movie, may have snapped.

Still from Madalena

In another movie, Madalena would be a mystery and being a mystery, it would have to get solved. Madiano Marchetti takes an oblique approach and focuses not on the main character itself, but on the people who either knew her or came upon her lifeless body dressed in white in a soy field. It is a novel take, but during the three semi-connected stories we get next to no information on who Madalena was as a trans woman and how did she end up murdered. The first story concerns a club patron whose only concern is to procure money that Madalena owes her so she can use that money to pay for her Vespa. The second story delves into the son of the owner of the soy farm where Madalena’s body was found. Fearful that a discovery like this could derail his mother’s political career, he spends the entire portion of his storyline trying to find the spot where Madalena was killed… only to never see her again. The final story comes with a hint of bittersweet resolution. Madalena’s trans friends, led by Bianca (Pamela Yule), come to her home to collect her belongings. Some reminiscing happens, but not enough to establish a sense of loss, so we transition towards an outing that places the three transwomen in a space of safety.

Watching Madalena I got the feeling that I was revisiting some of the banalities observed/listened in Bobbi Gentry’s 1967 song Ode to Billy Joe. While nothing in Marchetti’s movie comes even close to the Southern Gothic of Gentry’s song, the tone of reducing Madalena’s murder to a blip in time barely touching those who knew and didn’t know her seems to be the point here. We listen to the briefest of mentions of women murdered in unfortunate circumstances and it doesn’t quite touch us; all we can do is shake our head and go, “That poor woman,” if at that. Madalena, then, becomes a reveal of how society reacts to a trans woman’s disappearance: for one, she’s an inconvenience, for another, a threat of scandal, and for her very own sisters, just another day in paradise.

For Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), the private banker in Andreas Fontana’s Azor, the gradual realization that he may be in over his head might not as a surprise. After all, he is replacing a missing banker with a rather ominous reputation. Simply put, the very mention of the former banker’s name is enough to raise eyebrows and darken a room. Considering that de Wiel’s former colleague seems to have vanished overnight, it begs to question if he had a hand in mishandling certain securities he was entrusted to. There is an obscene amount of money and financial securities being moved from here to there, and with Argentina, in the middle of its Dirty War period in which many who didn’t walk a fine line or were even suspect met a grisly end, de Wiel seems to be the object of intense scrutiny. If these people are to place their trust in someone, they better abide by their rules.

Still from Azor

Fontana’s movie is elegant and filmed with a mainly brown palette. He fills every scene with hints of a greater evil just hiding in plain sight. Conversations are always filled with portent, and while it’s clear that something is foul in Denmark, no one gives as much as veiled explanations and narratives that leave a sense of dread pregnant in the air. Azor, for Argentineans, means “silence”, so during the story, it will be up to de Wiel that he sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing. In essence, there is a lot of Benjamin Naishtat’s 2018 Rojo which also dealt with the darker part of Argentinean history. Here we never see but the aftermath of the atrocities: homes and possessions repossessed, in line for the highest bidder. We get that these items belonged to “the disappeared” and now, are simply commodities. It is a horrific sequence because of how banal it looks. Judging from the way de Wiel reacts during the final sequence, it becomes clear that he has literally sold his soul for a life of comfort and protection.

Lastly, there is All the Light We Can See. Pablo Escoto has made a movie that will no doubt play well in film festivals and art galleries alike. Commercial, left of indie, it is not, with a story that isn’t as much a narrative as much as an exposition in the style of the Greek tragedy of a love affair gone wrong between two couples. While the movie is truly gorgeous to look at, at two hours, it is cumbersome to watch because of how stilted its language is, how mannered its performances are, and how much in ideologies he attempts to cram into what is essentially a fable of love.

SIFF 2021: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet and The Pink Cloud

Brazil and Argentina present two movies that attempt to present a world gone upside down through a cataclysm, which references the 2020 pandemic. [Note, both movies were filmed before the COVID-19 outbreak struck.]

Daniel Katz wearing an oxygen tank in The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet

Absurdism through a black and white lens and a young man somehow manages to come out of a series of disarming situations, one direr than the other, in Ana Katz’s movie The Dog Who Wouldn’t be Quiet (El Perro que no calla). Daniel Katz plays Sebastian, a soft-spoken man who sees the world react around him and somehow manages to conform to its curveballs. When the story begins we see him tending to some plants while his dog Rita observes in silence. Neighbors suddenly fill his doorway complaining that the dog won’t stop barking and perhaps the animal is in some mental anguish. The complaints get mirrored at work where Sebastian had brought his dog: the animal is disruptive. Such a disruption may lead to other employees acting out in non-productive ways. Sebastian leaves his job and finds work as a caregiver for a man suffering from dementia, which leads to other events in which Sebastian finds himself suffering a poignant loss, falling in love, and surviving a cataclysm that mirrors the 2020 pandemic. Ana Katz paints an experimental, gentle drama with hints of deadpan comedy that on two occasions veers into animated drawings that, while distancing in style, actually add to the gravitas. Her movie is a quiet exploration of resilience, pathos, and of a kind man caught under a world filled with chaos.

A lethal shade of rose envelops the world in The Pink Cloud

The Pink Cloud offers a hellish premise straight out of Luis Bunuel. If you ever saw The Exterminating Angel from 1962, you will see remarkable parallels between that movie and Iuli Gerbase’s debut film. With both movies, we find people unable to leave a comfortable space that becomes increasingly claustrophobic and which eventually pushes its occupants into the limits of stress. Both movies offer no explanation for why its cataclysmic event happens and offer no satisfaction. The culprit in The Pink Cloud is — you guessed it — a mysterious atmospheric change in which clouds turn a lovely shade of rose… and turn the air into a death trap that can kill you in 10 seconds.

A woman and a man (Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça) wake up from a night of partying to find themselves now having to lock themselves inside her home, unable to leave. Lucky for the woman, her place is conveniently large enough to fit her and the man she barely knows so at first, when the clouds appear, it seems a passing fad. “It’ll end soon,” its characters say through Facetime, and we as an audience hope so, (and again, I’m reminded about March of 2020 when the pandemic was new). It’s when the clouds refuse to leave when days become weeks, weeks become months, and months turn into years, the movie stretches itself into an act of indefinite torture. Stakes get higher, situations that would never have happened with the movie’s characters — central and peripheral — all of a sudden become very real, and the movie plunges into a dark terrain from where there may be no escape.

The Pink Cloud (A nuvem rosa)asks a lot from its characters and its audience alike. Forced cohabitation, the unreality that you might find yourself alone and left to fend for yourself (as one character is), is horrifying. Seeing its characters set adrift when we are still in the middle of a pandemic is a sobering experience. I recall when I didn’t know if a sense of normalcy might return. However, a year later, life is slowly returning to its roots (although we are still a long way). I can move about even when I still don’t engage in my pre-pandemic activities. The small cast of characters of The Pink Cloud, on the other hand, are glued to themselves and their immediate surroundings. Unnatural realities are being created, and life, miraculously, still goes on. You don’t have an alternative. You’re stuck to whoever you were stuck with at the moment of crisis; you can either manage or die.

Both The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet and The Pink Cloud are awaiting distribution so a release date is TBA,

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet: B

The Pink Cloud: B+

In Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (O Febre), a Man is Caught Between two Incompatible Realities

I think it’s safe to say we never truly left the culture of colonialism. Ever since Europeans came to the New World to conquer and explore we’ve been conquering ever since. In Maya Da-Rin’s quiet little movie The Fever, the ever-expanding web of colonialism continues to spread over the landscape like an invisible wildfire that no rain will ever quench. Under the guise of industry, we see the center character, a taciturn man named Justino (Regis Myrupu). He stands, impassive like a British general, the faintest of smiles drawn on his otherwise blank slate of a face, as the cargo stop he works for continues to buzz around him, powered by its own mechanisms. We will get to know this man and even then, still remain a bit mystified by his unknowability, throughout the movie’s lean but rich 90-minute run.

Justino has two lives: the one at work as a supervisor for the aforementioned cargo stop, and the one at home. At work, he is casually referred to as The Indian, a nickname Justino seems to have accepted without a fight. At home, he is a kind, gentle husband and gives into tender moments of storytelling with his infant grandson, while occasionally making comments I as a Latino man heard my own father say one too many times. Those comments, which usually start with the ubiquitous “In my time…” only affirm the fact that Justino is a man probably caught in the past when “things were different.” Now, he simply supervises and has fallen to fainting spells that have not gone unnoticed by his employers. Needless to say, job security and unions are nonexistent in Manaus, and Justino gets a veiled threat that he may lose his job if his spells continue.

The reason for his spells is no spoiler. His daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto) works in a hospital and is studying to become a doctor. Once she gets accepted to go to college, Justino reacts with incredible passive-aggressiveness (as any parent would do). As the events of the story move on we see Justino, caught between the impersonality of his job, which now also introduces a white Brazilian colleague who in every subsequent scene reveals himself as a racist and dreamy fugue at home where Justino allows himself to relax and live in relative comfort within the protection of the rainforest. A subplot of a creature set loose in the forest leads Justino to close encounters with it, and Da-Rin’s exploration of ambient sounds grants The Fever a tone of the otherworldly.

For a first movie, Maya Da-Rin’s movie is a small treasure that mostly sticks, and slightly doesn’t. Her narrative is organic, never rushed, never forced. Scenes flow in the way the jungle that surrounds Manaus does. An early sequence involving an old indigenous woman in the hospital where Vanessa works reveal Brazil’s mistreatment of those it would rather forget (a thing that actually seems to be a global attitude), and this short scene mirrors the events in Justino’s own life as a cog in the machinery that cares little for him as a person, more so because of his indigenous roots. Myrupu gives a meditative performance that seems effortless and lived-in. Whether this is due to his own experience — I can’t tell — I enjoyed seeing the actor on the scene simply telling me Da-Rin’s story as if he were confessing.

The Fever is still available via virtual cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Grade: B