'The Dead and the Others' ('Chuva e cantoria na aldeia dos mortos'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Poetic intentions, prosaic results.

Directors Joao Salaviza and Renee Nader Messora investigate a traditional Brazilian village community in this collaborative docudrama.

One of the more unorthodox titles premiering in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes this year, The Dead and the Others is a lightly dramatized mix of fact, fiction and anthropological field study. It was shot in a remote village in the Cerrado, a vast tropical savanna eco-region spanning the plateaus of central and northern Brazil. Portuguese director Joao Salaviza, who previously won a Cannes Palme d'Or with his 2009 short Arena, and his Brazilian co-director Renee Nader Messora embedded themselves with the indigenous Kraho people of the region for nine months, devising the story in collaboration with local cast and crew.

As an experiment in collaborative, exploratory docudrama, The Dead and the Others is an admirably committed enterprise. Sadly, as a cinematic experience, it is flat and functional. Salaviza and Messora are so cautiously reverential towards their indigenous protagonists, they end up rendering them dramatically banal, their life stories drained of all emotional or political bite. Enlivened only by a few poetic visual touches, this earnest labor of love quickly becomes a lethargic endurance test. Interest will likely be lukewarm beyond specialist festival slots and educational screenings.

The pic takes place in Pedra Branca, a traditional Kraho village in the northeastern Brazilian province of Tocantins. Shamans, spells and communing with the dead are all everyday elements of Kraho village life. They also have an animistic attitude to nature, believing stones, plants and animals all have their own souls. The story begins with 15-year-old Ihjac (Henrique Ihjac Kraho) addressing the disembodied spirit of his dead father by a moonlit pool at the foot of a waterfall. This lyrical detour into magical realism initially seems to promise a very different film, but the action soon settles into its more mundane default setting of docudrama naturalism.

Already a young father himself, with a wife and baby son, Ihjac is under pressure to organize his late father's ritual funeral feast, a communal act of closure which the Kraho use to exorcise the past and refocus on the present. But he also fears he is developing shamanic powers, which fills him with unease and drives him to flee the village. He seeks refuge in the local town, where white Brazilian doctors and social workers offer him medical tests and temporary accommodation. But when he outstays his welcome, cultural differences and subtle racism begin to enter the story. Ihjac finally accepts that he must return to his people and face his familial duties.

For its first hour, The Dead and the Others immerses the viewer in a rarefied tribal milieu with scant evidence of modernity in sight, where heavy rain and chirruping crickets provide a kind of constant musical backdrop. The effect is mildly hypnotic and appealingly exotic at first, but soon becomes repetitive and arguably a little voyeuristic. Only in the film's latter half do we see motor vehicles, television, soccer matches and other signifiers of Western civilization.

Salaviza and Messora make vaguely critical gestures towards the white colonizers who despoiled Brazil's hinterlands and decimated its indigenous tribes, but their elliptical approach never lands any serious punches. A more conventional journalistic documentary about the Kraho people would probably have gone against the spirit of the project, but it might also have been more informative than this well-meaning snoozefest. Incidentally, the film's original Portuguese title translates as "rain is singing in the village of the dead," which at least has more of an appealingly poetic ring than its prosaic English-language cousin.

Production companies: Entrefilmes, Karo Filmes, Material Bruto
Cast: Henrique Ihjac Kraho, Raene Koto Kraho
Directors: Joao Salaviza, Renee Nader Messora
Cinematographer: Renee Nader Messora
Editors: Joao Salaviza, Renee Nader Messora, Edgar Feldman
Translations and research: Ana Gabriela Morim De Lima, Ian Packer
Producers: Joao Salaviza, Renee Nader Messora, Ricardo, Alves Jr, Thiago Macedo Correia
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales company: Luxbox

119 minutes