As a member of the key creative team behind the Rio Olympics opening ceremony last year, Daniela Thomas helped to conceive a celebration of Brazilian cultural identity that refused to gloss over the shameful chapters of the past. One of the most powerful sequences in that arena spectacle was the arrival of African slaves. Pushing stylized plows while shuffling along on shackled feet, they gradually integrated in the Olympics pageant with indigenous Brazilians, European colonists and subsequent immigration waves to form the ethnically complex mestizo population of today.
In Thomas’ darkly oneiric epic, Vazante, the director and her screenwriting partner Beto Amaral take a deeper plunge back into history to examine once again the roots of that mosaic of miscegenation in a context far removed from civilization, bristling with the tensions of violence, subjugation and forced cross-cultural cohabitation.
Set in 1821, when Brazil was on the verge of independence, it's a slow-burn drama with a fairly austere attitude toward conventional exposition, dialogue and character development, which will confine it to the commercial margins. But the film is also transfixing in its formal rigor, impressive craft and striking visual beauty. Those factors, plus its searing depiction of racial cruelty and the weight given to its female characters in a patriarchal world, should spark some specialized distribution.
Photographed by Inti Briones in the inky textures of black and white, Vazante was shot on rugged locations in the craggy Diamantina Mountains that evoke the Wild West. Loose, handheld camerawork tracks mule trains through dense vegetation, composed interiors are illuminated by period-appropriate light sources, and the novelistic action is punctuated by imposing shots of malevolent skies that look like the charcoal drawings of a disturbed mind. They give the illusion of magnifying the already expansive widescreen frame to twice its size.
Thomas also used black and white to notable, though far less arresting, effect in her 1995 debut feature Foreign Land, a fado-inflected noir co-directed with frequent collaborator Walter Salles. Some of the themes here of corrupted power, cultural discordance and even colonialism in a certain sense echo that contemporary story.
The new film opens during a downpour, with a young Portuguese settler and her baby dying while she's in labor. Taciturn Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) returns with a fresh chain of slaves and livestock to the sprawling farmhouse he has acquired by marriage. He hauls a linen chest full of robes for his wife and son, only to find himself a childless widower. Scarcely bothering to communicate with his black housekeeper (Geisa Costa) or the slaves that live in rudimentary housing on his land, he gets even less company from his senile mother-in-law (Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha), who might as well be absent.
Right from the start, the threat of insanity hangs in the sleepy air, in Antonio's angry isolation or in the accusing eyes of the slaves that follow his every move. One new arrival in particular (Toumani Kouyate) appears from the tribal markings on his face to have come from a noble background. But his lack of a common language with the other slaves means his rejection of bondage is communicated purely by his rage.
With the property's diamond mines no longer producing, Antonio is persuaded by Jeremias (Fabricio Boliveira), a foreman with knowledge of the land, to embrace the switch to farming. Human beings are considered as property, scarcely different from the beasts of burden on the farm, a harsh reality evident in the willingness of Jeremias, a black Brazilian native, to dole out humiliating punishment to the African slaves who are slow to adapt to the new routines.
Having shaken off his grief, Antonio takes a new bride, settling on Beatriz (Luana Nastas), the precocious youngest daughter of his late wife's brother (Roberto Audio). The latter's own bitter spouse (Sandra Corveloni) is anxious for them to escape what she describes as a cursed place, and their move into town leaves Beatriz alone to face a new role for which she is unprepared.
In an unexpected show of restraint, Antonio holds off on consummating the marriage until Beatriz begins menstruating, bringing her a doll from one of his cattle- and slave-trading trips, which further confuses the dreamy child bride. The master continues to take the slave woman Feliciana (Jai Baptista) into his bed, her proud indignation perfectly visible beneath her silent compliance. But during one of Antonio's prolonged absences, Beatriz begins a playful flirtation with Feliciana's son Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), a sweet boy close to her in age. That interaction spreads anxiety among the household servants and other slaves, triggering consequences that simmer into a stunning explosion of violence.
Thomas' storytelling skills are less precise than her command of imagery and mood, and the two-hour film could definitely benefit from tightening. But there's never a moment in this starch-free period piece that doesn't feel fully inhabited or authentic. That applies to the production and costume design, with its shabby vestiges of former prosperity, and also to the unshowy performances of both the colonial settlers and the slaves.
The contribution of veteran Portuguese sound designer Vasco Pimentel merits special mention. Enveloping the action in a transporting thicket of birds and buzzing insects; snorting livestock and cowbells; wind and rain; gurgling water, sloshing mud and rustling trees and grasses — he brings to unsettling life a natural world both seductive and hostile.
Production companies: Globo Filmes, Cisma Producoes, Dezenove Som e Imagem, Ukbar Filmes
Cast: Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Sandra Corveloni, Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha, Roberto Audio, Jai Baptista, Isadora Favero, Toumani Kouyate, Vinicius Dos Anjos, Fabricio Boliveira, Geisa Costa, Adilson Magha, Alexandre De Sena
Director: Daniela Thomas
Screenwriters: Daniela Thomas, Beto Amaral
Producers: Beto Amaral, Maria Ionescu, Sara Silveira
Director of photography: Inti Briones
Production designer: Valdy Lopez Jr.
Costume designer: Cassio Brasil
Editors: Estevan Schilling, Tiago Marinho
Casting: Patricia Faria
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Sales: Films Boutique