'Azougue Nazare': Film Review | Rotterdam 2018

International Film Festival Rotterdam
A quicksilver dispatch from boisterous Brazil.

Brazilian writer-director Tiago Melo's feature-length debut premiered in a competitive sidebar at the Dutch festival.

Cultures clash with a reverberant clang in Azougue Nazare, a promisingly energetic and distinctive first feature from Brazilian writer-director Tiago Melo. Dramatizing the conflict between boisterous tribal-ritual spectacles and evangelical Christianity in the northwestern state of Pernambuco, it's a vibrant glimpse into the fascinating subculture of Maracatu, the elaborately costumed performance-based carnival tradition with roots in Brazil's slavery era. Premiering in the Bright Future section at Rotterdam, the picture certainly wouldn't have been out of place in the main Tiger competition and will likely prove a colorful adornment to numerous festivals in the coming months.

Melo's cast is mainly composed of non-professionals hailing from the small city of Nazare de Mata in the agricultural cane-sugar region near regional capital Recife, many of whom are heavily involved in Maracatu themselves. Some of these aren't the most gifted of thespians, but any such shortcomings are easily outbalanced by the bulky figure of Valmir do Coco who effortlessly dominates the ensemble as working schlub Tiao. A figure of fun among his boisterous male pals, easygoing Tiao faces strife at home: His wife Darlene (Joana Gatis) is a devout Christian who takes a dim view of his Maracatu activities. Going by the moniker Catita Daiana, Tiao's flamboyant alter ego is something of a whirling dervish bedecked in dowdy transvestite attire.

The pastor at Darlene's church (Mestre Barachinha) was himself a renowned "Maracatu master" before finding God and renouncing such profane shenanigans, against which he sternly fulminates during his sermons. It's a hopeless task, as Maracatu is so evidently ingrained within the fabric of the Nazare de Mata community, with the whole year building up to the extravagant celebrations of carnival week.

Produced in association with the city's biggest Maracatu troupe, Azougue Nazare — the tricky title's first word is a near-untranslatable Portuguese term evoking the mercurial liveliness of quicksilver — makes no pretense at unbiased objectivity. Melo and Jeronimo Lemos' screenplay caricatures the pastor as a bad-tempered, lecherous hypocrite who uses a very dubious reading of scriptural texts as a means to become intimate with the more shapely female members of his flock — including Darlene.

This is one of numerous subplots Melo weaves together in a script which leaves several loose ends carelessly dangling but does feel like an organic emanation of the particular place and culture depicted. Occasional left-field supernatural touches are executed with offhand aplomb in a film that exudes casual charm and good humor, built four-square around a sympathetic, charismatic and often amusing turn by newcomer do Coco, who has screen presence to burn.

Melo — who worked as a line producer on Recife-based Kleber Mendonca Filho's international success Aquarius (Mendonca takes an "associate producer" credit here) and on Gabriel Mascaro's widely screened Neon Bull — has assembled a slick-looking affair that doesn't outstay its welcome at a brisk 80 minutes. Gustavo Pessoa's widescreen images, Ananias de Caldas' art direction, the score by Tomaz Alves Souza & Mestre Anderson and the sound design by Guga S. Rocha & Marina Silva fluently combine to conjure Pernambuco's irresistibly intoxicating flavors and rhythms.

Production companies: Lucinda Filmes, Uranio Filmes
Cast: Valmir do Coco, Joana Gatis, Mestre Barachinha, Mohana Uchoa, Mestre Anderson
Director-production designer: Tiago Melo
Screenwriters: Jeronimo Lemos, Tiago Melo
Producers: Leonardo Sette, Vanessa Barbosa
Cinematographer: Gustavo Pessoa
Production designer: Ananias de Caldas
Costume designer: Dona Biu
Editor: Andre Sampaio
Composers: Anderson Miguel, Tomaz Alvez Souza
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future competition)
Sales: Lucinda Filmes, Recife, Brazil (azouguenazare@gmail.com)

In Portuguese
80 minutes