'Obra': Toronto Review

Obra Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Cinematográfica Superfilmes

Obra Film Still - H 2014

Stunning visuals and fascinating ideas, played out with frustrating abstraction

Gregorio Graziosi’s debut tackles the troubled relationship between an architect and his family’s violent past

The images and the ideas come first in Gregorio Graziosi’s Obra, followed some way behind by the character and story work. Shot in often stunning black and white, and slow to the point of stasis, it has a good story to tell about a young architect thrown into self-doubt by the unexpected discovery of skeletons on a site he’s working on. But Obra seems uninterested in developing his troubled hero into anything more than a study of personal pain or a symbol of the pain his nation should be feeling. Though the result is a carefully-crafted, visually stunning cinematic equivalent of leafing slowly through a book of photographs, Graziosi’s exquisite visual sense alone should be enough to generate further festival interest.

The architect (Irandhir Santos) is working on two projects: one the restoration of a church, the other a building project being overseen by a site foreman (Julio Andrade) on land owned by the architect’s family. His British wife (Lola Peploe) is pregnant, and his grandfather is dying, meaning that he can reveal nothing about the skeletons which are uncovered on the site. With very little help from the script, the viewer may be able to work out that the skeletons are those of political victims of the Brazilian dictatorship which ran from the 60s to the 80s, and that the grandfather may have played a part in the atrocities.

The architect becomes wracked by self-doubt about the moral foundations of the status and wealth he enjoys, and by extension the status and wealth Brazil itself enjoys. His self-doubt manifests itself not only in lengthy shots of a perfectly-framed Santos striking poses of self-conscious suffering, but also in a herniated disk. One painful three.minute sequence — in other words, almost 4% of the film’s running time — shows the architect getting dressed, leading one to wonder whether some of that time might not have been more gainfully employed. Too often, as a character the architect appears to be little more than another element of Graziosi’s perfectly-composed scenes, the angularity of his features and his presumably black and white clothing forming a perfect visual echo of the film’s abundant, striking cityscapes.

The ideas are fascinating but the treatment of them purely abstract, which makes the viewing of Obra a remote, even chilly experience. “All these forgotten people”, the architect’s wife murmurs when they are visiting an indigenous burial ground, leading the viewer to reflect on why the script hasn’t taken the opportunity to remember the victims better instead of stylizing them into further nameless oblivion.

The event/image ratio rises over the last twenty minutes, when the foreman does his best to invoke the dead by sending the architect an envelope containing human hair. It’s an event which provokes one of surprisingly few risible moments in a film which is so obviously striving for significance, and it’s as close as Obra ever comes to being drama.

Production company: Cinematografica Superfilmes
Cast: Irandhir Santos, Lola Peploe, Julio Andrade, Marku Ribas, Luciana Ine Domschke, Sabrina Greve, Christiana Ubach, Marisol Ribeiro
Director: Gregorio Graziosi
Screenwriters: Graziosi, Paolo Gregori
Producers: Zita Carvalhosa
Executive producers: Leonardo Mecchi
Director of photography: Andre Siqueira Brandao
Production designer: Mario Saladini, Vera Oliveira
Editor: Gabriel Vieira De Mello
Sales: FiGa/Br
No rating

80 minutes