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A potential nail-biter of a scenario suffers from some highly minimalist storytelling in Rifle, which marks the second feature of Brazilian writer-director Davi Pretto (Castanha). With an effective title and promising pitch, this tale of a lonely farmhand who fights back against wealthy land-grabbers could have been a solidly engaging social thriller, and one with enough pyrotechnics to keep one riveted. But despite a few explosive moments and lots of remarkable scenery, the film’s all-too naturalistic approach and underwhelming performances will make it a tough sell outside of the festival circuit.
It takes a good half-hour until the eponymous weapon is used, and at that point Pretto delivers several pared-down but suspenseful scenes — including an impressive car stunt that’s done in one long and uninterrupted take. But before and after that 20-minute stretch of action, the script (co-written with Richard Tavares) never develops into an intriguing enough account of one man’s struggle to protect his territory, focusing on a character whose erratic behavior is often hard to comprehend.
In fact, the land in question doesn’t even belong to Dione (Dione Avila de Oliveira), a young drifter who lives with a clan of poor farmers in the heart of southern Brazil. He’s a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions, pulling off odd jobs for the family and their neighbors, engaging in an affair with one of their younger daughters and otherwise wandering for hours around the vast and open landscape.
Dione already seems to be on edge when the movie starts, so after a developer swings by to make an offer on the farm — in a recurring trend that leaves the surrounding land in the hands of a few agribusiness giants — he reacts in a rather unusual way: first by picking up a rifle and scaring off partygoers frolicking around a nearby forest, then by randomly shooting at any car or truck coming down the road. It’s a jarring turn of events, with Dione transforming from a quiet nobody into something like the D.C. sniper, though the experience is short-lived and never seems to have any real consequences.
There’s obviously a political bent to Rifle, and Pretto perhaps wanted Dione to serve as a sort of metaphor for the violence that arises when corporations and corruption destroy the lives of everyday people. (We learn at one point that Dione was a soldier who was discharged from the army for a painful accident that wasn’t his fault.) But it’s hard to invest in a story told in such a vague and distanced manner, and by a cast of nonprofessionals reciting dialogue without any real flair or attempts to render it palpable.
The director’s approach often seems closer to documentary than to fiction, and Rifle ultimately delivers less of a narrative than an observant portrait of rural life in a far corner of Brazil. To that effect, photography by Glauco Firpo does a good job capturing the expansiveness of the area, with night sequences — including a flaming car coursing through the darkness — that are especially beautiful to behold. Sound design by Marcos Lopes and Tiago Bello also contributes to the strong overall atmosphere.
Production company: Tokyo Films
Cast: Dione Avila de Oliveira, Evaristo Goularte, Andresse Goularte, Elizabete Nogueira
Director: Davi Pretto
Screenwriters: Davi Pretto, Richard Tavares
Producer: Paola Wink
Director of photography: Glauco Firpo
Production designer: Richard Tavares
Editor: Bruno Carboni
Composers: Davi Pretto, Marco Lopes, Tiago Bello
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Patra Spanou
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