'All the Dead Ones' ('Todos os mortos'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Helene Louvart/Dezenove Som e Imagens

Marco Dutra ('Good Manners') and Caetano Gotardo ('Your Bones and Your Eyes') co-directed this female-led drama set some 10 years after slavery was abolished in Brazil.

Sometimes, as a critic, you really love the film that the filmmakers were trying to make — even though they failed, perhaps even spectacularly, to actually make it. Brazilian Berlinale competition title All the Dead Ones (Todos os mortos) is one such film.

Directors Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra — the latter a co-director on the fascinating genre hybrid Good Manners that premiered in Locarno in 2017 — spin a story set in 1899 and 1900, a decade after slavery was abolished in Brazil. They mainly follow the women of the Soares family, whose men used to run a coffee empire but who have now fallen on hard times. Some of their former slaves, notably from the Nascimento family, have become their servants, though they, too, are unsure how to advance in a world where the old rules no longer apply and any new rules seem vague to say the least.

The setup is thus a fascinating one, combining hot-button issues like inequality and race with a female point of view at a pivotal moment in the country’s history. But instead of a heartfelt, sprawling epic — à la Cannes Un Certain Regard winner Invisible Life, which did a similar thing for Brazil’s treatment of women — the result feels like a dry and endless lecture more than an involving human story about serious issues. It’s a movie that’s all subtext and no text — and even the subtext struggles to make a point that’s more complex than a blunt truth. Some festivals will warm to the timely sounding pitch nonetheless, but theatrical prospects look, well, dead.  

The film starts on Independence Day in the spring of 1899, as the black servant Josefina Nascimento (Alaide Costa) grounds coffee and sings in the kitchen of the Sao Paulo home of the Soares family as it softly rains outside. It’s a beautifully observed, tactile moment, captured with grace and simplicity by ace French cinematographer Helene Louvart (who also shot Invisible Life). It is also, sadly, practically the only moment of real poetry in the film. 

Not much later, Josefina is dead and the Soares materfamilias, Isabel (Thaia Perez), also starts to show signs of aging and discomfort. This shakes her flighty adult daughter, the piano prodigy Ana (Carolina Bianchi), to her core, something that Ana’s sister, the devout and pragmatic nun Maria (Clarissa Kiste), tries to remedy. The solution may lie in the decrepit family estate, which is being sold piecemeal to creditors, as some of Josefina’s family still work there as servants. Maria travels there and tries to convince the former slave Ina (Mawusi Tulani) to come back to Sao Paulo with her, because Ana is convinced that the African rituals she remembers from her childhood — but that got Ina and her family banned for a while since they were incompatible with Christianity — will cure their mother. 

This basic premise is simple enough and there’s a rich gallery of characters who all muddle along in their own way, including Ina’s mischievous young son, Joao (Agyei Augusto); a fussy Portuguese neighbor (De Oliveira muse Leonor Silveira); and her cousin, the handsome, mixed-blood Eduardo (Thomas Aquino), who has an eye on Ana. The latter, however, can’t bring herself to even imagine having babies that aren’t 100 percent white. The conversation in which she explains all this to a devastated Eduardo is a good example of the modus operandi of All the Dead Ones, with Ana literally confessing to the concerned party that she wouldn’t recognize children that aren’t white as her own. (It’s a moment that feels more blunt than elegant and the moment’s bluntness robs it of any sense of depth or complexity.)

Her direct words of course illustrate her ingrained racist attitude but what’s missing is any sense of Ana as a character or the societal context that produced thinking like Ana’s. As it stands, Ana seems like a kooky adult child, a kind of Paulista Miss Havisham who makes little sense as a character. She believes African traditions will absolutely cure her mother’s vague illness but she doesn’t want a drop of African blood in her children and this clear contradiction isn’t even hinted at, much less explored. Her behavior thus becomes simply shrug-worthy; it’s hard to care about the ravings of crazy people and it’s even harder if they are also racist. 

Something similar is the case for almost all of the characters, who exist more as mouthpieces for dialogue — not coherent ideas, but big-sounding words strung together — that touch on the important themes the writer-directors want to explore. But since the characters don’t even remotely seem alive, it’s impossible to care about what they say. The filmmakers have a habit of reverting to platitudes rather than more intricate analysis; “Africa is big,” Ina says when a white character seems incapable of understanding that there might be more than one spiritual tradition on an enormous continent. The subject isn’t treated in any further depth. 

Like the "dead" of the title, which one supposes are the dead slaves Ana might be seeing around the house at times, it is also impossible to disentangle what is part of each character and what is supposed to have larger metaphorical meaning. What to make, for example, of the intervention, late in the film, of the Portuguese neighbor? Are the directors trying to suggest something about the fact that Portugal abolished slavery before Brazil and was thus somehow more enlightened or advanced? But wouldn’t Portugal at least partially be to blame for the mess Brazil found itself in at the turn of the century (and even up until today)? 

It’s something of a surprise that the feature feels so amateurishly written, especially given the fact that Dutra co-wrote Good Manners, an exciting and smart (if overlong) mishmash of social commentary and genre tropes. His partner on that film, Juliana Rojas, is credited here as one of the editors alongside the helmers, though sadly she doesn’t seem to have been involved in the writing.  

Acting is uneven, with Tulani and Augusto apparently playing in a much broader film than Costa, Kiste, Bianchi, Perez and Silveira. The general tone and look of the film is similarly unsteady; sometimes it is fin de siècle postcard-pretty, like when the Nascimentos have a picnic on a hill overlooking the city, and at other times it is a little messier and more theatrical. Production values are fine, with the restless ambient sound the standout craft contribution. 

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Dezenove Som e Imagens, Good Fortune Films
Cast: Mawusi Tulani, Clarissa Kiste, Carolina Bianchi, Thaia Perez, Agyei Augusto, Leonor Silveira, Alaide Costa, Rogerio Brito, Thomas Aquino
Writer-directors: Caetano Gotardo, Marco Dutra 
Producers: Sara Silveira, Maria Ionescu, Clement Duboin, Florence Cohen
Cinematography: Helene Louvart
Production design: Juliana Lobo
Costume design: Gabriella Marra
Editing: Juliana Rojas, Caetano Gotardo, Marco Dutra
Music: Salloma Salomaon Gui Braz
Sales: Indie Sales

In Brazilian Portuguese
No rating, 120 minutes