[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]
The Brazilian government's efforts in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics to clean up crime in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, a program dubbed "pacification," were part of a widely reported broader sweep to hide the city's poor from international visitors. Paxton Winters' Pacified, an intimate snapshot of one high-risk shantytown community seen through the wide-open eyes of a 13-year-old girl, reverses that push by humanizing its subjects — from the drug lords to the innocents caught in their web. While the overlong film doesn't sustain the surging vitality of its establishing scenes, this is a textured snapshot of complicated lives, imbued with an enveloping sense of place.
Winner of the top competition prize as well as honors for best actor and cinematography at last fall's San Sebastian International Film Festival, Pacified benefits from the American writer-director having been embedded in the Morro dos Prazeres community for some time as the project was coming together. It was conceived as a documentary but evolved into a narrative feature assembled around real-life stories. Casting of nonprofessional locals in many roles adds to the authenticity, notably so with Cassia Nascimento, the stunningly natural performer in the central role of Tati, the eyes and ears as well as the vulnerable heart of the drama.
The opening shot of sweaty morning sun washing in over the sleepy face of Tati in bed signals an arresting visual style that makes sumptuous use of warm natural light, lush color and atmospheric night scenes without ever veering into poverty porn. With sinuous camera movement, cinematographer Laura Merians, whose background is in commercials and music videos, captures the dense tangle of favela dwellings, stacked higgledy-piggledy one on top of another all the way up the mountainside. They are separated by labyrinthine alleys and rooftop passageways and split down the middle by a seemingly endless flight of steps, shown from above in one spectacularly impactful image as the man who may or may not be Tati's father lugs a refrigerator up the hill on his back.
Tati is a teen girl like countless others everywhere, hanging out with her best friend Leticia (Rayane Conciecao), shooting precocious dance videos on her smartphone. She and her young cokehead mother, Andrea (Débora Nascimento), split their time between their own house and that of the woman she calls grandma, Dona Preta (Léa Garcia), whose son Dudu (Raphael Logam) is on the fringes of the local criminal constituency and has an ambiguous relationship with Andrea. To make some cash, her mother regularly sends Tati down into the town with a tray of candy and loose cigarettes to sell.
On one of those evening forays, she watches the closing ceremony fireworks at the Olympic stadium far below, conveying in a single shot the vast distance separating Tati's world from the glittering tourist destination spread out at the foot of the mountain.
When she overhears that Dudu's older brother Jacu (Bukassa Kabengele) is due to be released from prison, Tati immediately wants to know more about the man she has been led to believe is her father. Others wonder if he's going to return to his former position as the crime boss of the community, deposing Nelson (José Loreto), the cocky lieutenant he appointed to run things in his absence.
The impression emerges that unlike cruel, widely feared Nelson, Jacu was a fair and just leader. But when people ask him for help to settle disputes, he insists he's no longer in charge and has no interest in reassuming that power. A somber man, played by Kabengele with a heavy cloak of introspective ruefulness, Jacu just wants to open a pizzeria, making use of a skill he acquired during his 14 years in prison.
The agility of the early storytelling dissipates a little as Winters lingers over the predictably simmering tensions between Nelson, who remains suspicious of the threat to his turf, and taciturn Jacu, who is done with criminal life. This plotline feels hackneyed and the writer-director brings nothing particularly fresh to it. But the fostering of a hesitant connection between Jacu and Tati provides an emotional core that keeps you watching, serving as a counterweight to the girl's erratic bond with tetchy Andrea, which is compromised by the latter's drug habit.
It's to the film's credit that it eschews the usual quick cutting and explosive violence of the gangland drama, mostly keeping the focus more personal, a choice echoed in Beto Villares' moody, melancholy score. But Winters seems to foreshadow a face-off between Nelson and Jacu that doesn't arrive; this creates a slight void in the conclusion, not helped by rushed handling of Nelson's outcome. There’s poignancy, however, in sorrowful developments around Dudu and a live-wire presence in Jefferson Brasil as a smart-mouthed drug dealer whose role ultimately becomes more significant.
Pacified is at its best when it gently probes the developing relationship between Jacu and Tati, both of them products of a psychologically damaging and physically dangerous environment that emerge somehow with their resilient spirits intact. The beautiful final shot is an image full of hope, of Tati's face looking out over the favela's hillside cluster, a milieu into which Winters breathes vibrant life.
Production companies: Reagent Media, in association with Kinomad Productions, Muskat Filmed Properties, Protozoa Pictures, Fox Films do Brazil, Spray Filmes, Gullane Entertainment
Cast: Cassia Nascimento, Bukassa Kabengele, Débora Nascimento, José Loreto, Jefferson Brasil, Léa Garcia, Raphael Logam, Thiago Thomé, Rayane Conciecao
Director-screenwriter: Paxton Winters
Story: Paxton Winters, Wellington Magalhães, Joseph Carter
Producers: Paula Linhares, Marcos Tellechea, Lisa Muskat, Darren Aronofsky, Paxton Winters
Executive producers: Guilherme Martin Somlo, Norberto Pinheiro Junior, Giovana Refatti, Fernando Louriero, Giovanna Arede
Director of photography: Laura Merians
Production designer: Ricardo Van Steen
Costume designer: Bella Cardoso
Music: Beto Villares
Editor: Aylin Zoi Tinel
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)