'Where I Grow Old' ('A cidade onde envelheco'): Rotterdam Review

Where I Grow Old still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Nicely nuanced tale of female friendship.

Brazilian documentary-maker Marilia Rocha's first fictional feature competed for the Tiger Award at the revitalized Dutch festival.

Previously best known outside Brazil as home city of deafening heavy-metal heroes Sepultura, the seldom-filmed inland metropolis Belo Horizonte reveals its quieter, more sensual and subtle sides in Marilia Rocha's deft character-piece Where I Grow Old (A cidade onde envelheco). Observing two Portuguese friends as they seek to establish new roots on the other side of the Atlantic, this delicate and low-key culture-clash mood-piece represents a notably promising fiction-feature debut from well-regarded documentary-maker Rocha.

Premiering in the Tiger competition at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Brazil/Portugal co-production's unfussy feminism and laid-back verisimilitude will help it score plentiful festival play — including perhaps at Tribeca in April, given that the project was the recipient of a Bloomberg Fellowship from the Manhattan event. Eschewing melodrama — and often even drama — in favor of organic situations and developments, it's a deceptively modest but impressively mature effort that deserves a shot at art-house play beyond its obvious Lusophone target markets.

Responsible for 2009's coming-of-ager Like Water Through Stone — set in the mountains of the Minais Gerais province of which Belo Horizonte (aka BH, pop 1.5m) is the capital — Rocha belongs to the Teia collective, a Brazilian group whose projects combine documentary and fiction elements. In 2011, Sergio Borges' uneven, BH-set multi-strander The Sky Above contended for the Rotterdam Tigers; the same year, Clarissa Campolina and Helvecio Marins' Venice-premiering Swirl absorbingly followed the daily routines of an elderly rural woman.

Following standard Teia operating practice, Rocha — working with The Sky Above's cinematographer Ivio Lopes Araujo — uses only non-professional performers, developing scenarios closely based on their own experiences. Elizabete Francisca (a dancer by trade) plays Teresa, who relocates to bustling BH ("you walk out the door and it's like you're in a movie") and stays in an apartment with her longtime pal Francisca (Francisca Manuel). Francisca made the same leap some time before, and seems very much at home. The vivacious, slightly younger Teresa quickly adapts to the very different rhythms of Brazil, where everything is much more "relaxed," "loose" and "sociable" than back home ("we lean on each other here, that's how we roll") — not that many Europeans would regard the Portuguese as especially strait-laced.

In contrast to the default minimal-dialogue art-house mode of so much current Latin American cinema, Where I Grow Old is abuzz with chatter, as Teresa and Francisca seem to discuss every aspect of their lives. These frank conversations, which ensure the picture aces the Bechdel Test without breaking sweat, help defuse the kinds of domestic frictions which would inevitably crop up in lesser screenplays.

Three writers are credited here, with additional input from the five main cast members, in a film which gives the impression of relying heavily — but profitably — on improvisational techniques. The dialogue is both everyday and revealing, as when the duo look at a potential new apartment and disagree over the bathroom tiles. Francisca bewails the "tremendous lack of attention to detail" in Brazilian workmanship, but Teresa reckons "that's what makes it special — one color here, another color there."

Such moments offer insights into a fascinating nation and its melting-pot culture — an area in the spotlight just now for reasons both upbeat (World Cup, Olympics) and horrible (Zika Virus, police brutalities). The prism comprises these two intelligent, articulate surrogates: women on the cusp of their thirties, pondering their futures. Remarkably assured given their lack of big-screen experience, the cinema debutantes show enough to suggest both could craft successful careers in front of the camera if they so choose — although Manuel is herself a budding director of film and video.

The camera meanwhile simply adores Elizabete Francisca, who so casually incarnates an individual sensitively attuned to life's possibilities. The actresses' here is considerable testament to the skill of Rocha and her off-screen collaborators, who have crafted such a simple but sturdy showcase within which three-dimensional characterizations can emerge. Rocha nearly manages to do for BH what Marcelo Gomes did for another "provincial" Brazilian city, Recife, to such striking effect in 2013's Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica, both films delving deep beneath the skins of their female protagonists and making wider points about the possibilities for women in 21st century urban society.

Where I Grow Old's Portuguese-language title specifically refers to the city, and the picture reaches its most affecting and lyrical peak in a dreamy final-reel montage of streets and buildings, accompanied by a haunting track from a performer from the school of Teresa's beloved Caetano Veloso. This sequence concludes too quickly, but does enough to show some hints of Rocha's potential range — it'll be fascinating to see where this talented and adventurous filmmaker elects to head next.

Production companies: Anavilhana Filmes, Terratreme Filmes
Cast: Elizabete Francisca, Francisca Manuel, Paulo Nazareth, Jonnata Doll, Neguinho Wederson dos Santos
Director: Marilia Rocha
Screenwriters: Marilia Rocha, Joao Dumans, Thais Fujinaga
Producer: Joao Matos
Executive producer: Luana Melgaco
Cinematographer: Ivo Lopes Araujo
Production designer: Thais de Campos
Editor: Francisco Moreira
Casting: Leonor Noiva, Clarissa Campolina
Sales: FiGa, Los Angeles

Not rated, 99 minutes