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“Nobody’s nice around here,” complains the fifteen year-old protagonist of Absence, and he’s pretty much right. A film about this boy’s growing awareness of the multiple absences in his own life, it displays a thoughtful understanding even of its less appealing characters, thereby constructing a strong human foundation on which everything else is built — although that everything is sometimes obvious and sometimes just deja vu. The debuting youngster Matheus Fagundes was deservedly awarded best actor at Rio for his central role here, with the film also taking a special jury prize, suggesting that festival interest at least will be guaranteed.
The opening scene shows three men methodically driving to, entering and removing the contents of an apartment. We soon learn that one of the men is the father of Serginho ( Fagundes), and that what he has really removed from both the film and from his son’s life is not his furniture, but himself. Serginho lives with his baby brother and his heavy-drinking mother Luzia (Gilda Nomacce), who shuttles all too plausibly between affection for Serginho and a bitterness at her circumstances which she takes out on the him.
Rather than go to school, Serginho has to, or chooses to, work at with his brutish uncle Lazinho (Antonio Ravan) at the fruit market, sometimes visiting the house of a teacher, Ney (Irandhir Santos). Dramatically, it’s unclear why he’s making these visits, but thematically it’s clear that he’s seeking a surrogate father — a position for which Ney will later suggest he’s unsuitable. He may be wrong in this, for reasons that significantly neither he nor Serginho are equipped to see.) Apart from that, Serginho hangs out with his friends Mudinho (Thiago de Matos) and Silvinha (Andreia Mayum), with whom he makes a fumbling attempt at a relationship, and takes his kid brother to the circus on the outskirts of town where his aunt, Ivone (Francisca Gavilan, so wonderful three years ago in Violeta Went to Heaven), works.
With simple strokes Teixera’s script lays out the emotional structure of a life in which the key things — namely affection, and the father who might have brought it — are indeed absent. Forced to assume the traditional masculine responsibilities (including lending his mother money, which she then spends on drink), Serginho is lacking the model he needs to be able to do so, though to be fair, from what we learn about his father he was barely a beacon of model behavior even when he was around. At another level, Absence seems to be rather conservatively suggesting that the old role models are collapsing, and that all would be well, or at least better, if Serginho’s family were still together — a dubious position.
Performances are low-key and natural, and the script’s affection, not only for its main character, but also for the others, is manifest. Fagundes, who appears in practically every scene, carries the burden well, creating a portrait of a serious-adolescent who rarely complains about his life but rather, knowing no other, simply accepts it as he struggles with increasing difficulty to keep alive the flame of hope. The role is actually two, rolled into one: the adult of the family when he’s around his mom, Serginho is a typical awkward kid when he isn’t, and under Teixeira’s careful guidance, the young actor neatly fuses both halves of the performance. He explores a further register in an extended later scene opposite Santos, the film saving its best till last.
Some of the tropes are deja vu — the circus, for example, as a symbol of imaginative release and freedom. Indeed, it’s the kind of storyline which lends itself to sentimental excess, but there is little. What there is instead is a refreshing clarity of purpose and directness which later becomes overschematic as, one by one, practically all the possibilities of redemption for Serginho’s blighted life are set up only to then be knocked down.
In one case particularly, this feels forced, meaning that from the audience’s point of view Luzia moves from being simply a bad mother to the devil incarnate. It is a rare moment of implausibility in a script whose faithfulness to the emotional truth is more or less constant, and which by the end makes Absence, despite its flaws, a subtly moving film.
Production company: Bossa Nova Films, Anhangabau Filmes, Wood Producciones, Cine-Sud Promotions, HBO Latin America Originals, Anhagabau Producoes
Cast: Matheus Fagundes, Irandhir Santos, Francisca Gavilan, Gilda Nomacce, Thiago de Matos, Antonio Ravan
Director, screenwriter: Chico Teixeira
Producers: Denise Gomes, Paula Cosenza, Lili Bandeira,Andres Wood, Patricio Perreira, Thierry Lenouvel
Director of photography: Ivo lopes de Arauujo
Production designer: Marcos Pedroso
Editor: Vania Debbs
Composer: Alexandre Kassin
Sales: Bossa Nova Films
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