Praia do Futuro: Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
Clemens Schick, Wagner Moura and Jesuita Barbosa in "Praia do Futuro"
A dreamy, melancholy drama from Karim Ainouz that’s stronger on mood than narrative depth.

Tragedy brings two strangers together, sparking separate searches for identity and belonging in this visually hypnotic journey from a sun-blasted Brazilian beach to wintry Berlin.

Whether the men at the center of Praia do Futuro are swimming, running, dancing, fighting or having vigorous sex, the physicality of their bodies is mesmerizing. It can be sensual, liberating, dangerous or all three. But Karim Ainouz has always been more attentive as a filmmaker to the creation of atmospheric and emotional texture than to story or character, and that bias inhibits this visually seductive drama from fully engaging beyond the aesthetic level. Still, the film’s extraordinary tactile beauty and depth of feeling – even if the latter is too seldom articulated – will cast a certain spell over admirers of poetic, image-based cinema.

Around three principal figures, Ainouz and co-writer Felipe Braganca have threaded the barest rudiments of a plot, which obliquely considers themes of escape, adventure, disappearance and self-reinvention, making expressive use of both the sea and the city as places offering infinite ways in which to vanish. As an exploration of cultural dislocation and discovery, and the expatriate state of mind – at the cost of home and family – it touches on a lot of intriguing points, even if those ideas remain abstract. Given that Ainouz, whose films have included Madame Sata and The Silver Cliff, has moved around from his native Brazil to New York and currently Berlin, there's no doubt an element of personal experience in these reflections.

Divided into three chapters, the first of which is “The Drowner’s Embrace,” the film opens with a blast of electropunk as two German motorcyclists roar over the dunes at the Brazilian location of the title, which translates as “Future Beach.” They strip down and run into the surf, where one of them is caught in a riptide and drowns, despite the efforts of local lifeguard Donato (Wagner Moura) to rescue him.

Shaken by his first experience of a death on his patrol, Donato breaks the news to the victim’s companion, Konrad (Clemens Schick), in hospital. An Afghanistan war veteran, Konrad at first refuses the Brazilian’s offer of support, and then via a quick cut that typifies Ainouz’s disregard for standard linking dialogue, he works out his grief on him sexually. Konrad sticks around and spends time with Donato while authorities search for his friend’s body. This section also shows the loving relationship between Donato and his 10-year-old brother Ayrton (Savio Ygor Ramos).

The depiction of the treacherous waters and the men who patrol and try to tame them is quite powerful. Images of lifesavers training on the beach celebrate male beauty and strength in a way that recalls the similarly dreamy 1999 Claire Denis film, Beau Travail.

There’s an elegant contrast in the visual transition from the scorching colors and crisp light of Brazil to the muted grays and wintry tones of Berlin in the second chapter, “A Hero Cut in Half.” Donato has accompanied Konrad home, and while their desire for one another is palpable and their emotional connection appears strong, Donato is torn about leaving his family with no explanation. “I can’t live in a place without a beach,” he tells the German, but despite the sense of sadness and isolation, he stays.

The third section, titled “A German-Speaking Ghost,” picks up with the arrival, eight years later, of Ayrton (Jesuita Barbosa), first glimpsed in a telling shot alongside the international clock at Alexanderplatz. He tracks down his brother, now working as a maintenance diver in the Berlin Zoo aquarium, one of many scenes in which Ainouz and cinematographer Ali Olcay Gozcaya show an impeccable eye for distinctive locations. The streets of the German city at night are a moody canvas, with gorgeous close-ups of Ayrton in a motorcycle helmet with full face visor underscoring the alien theme.

Bristling with years’ worth of pain and anger over being abandoned by his idolized older brother, Ayrton spits out news from home with the coldness of someone unwilling to repair broken bonds. At the same time, he responds like his brother before him to the vitality and alluring otherness of the city. Donato has long since moved on from Konrad, but he reaches out to the German, and the three men struggle to find some form of reconciliation and mutual understanding. 

For a film that’s primarily observational and short on actual plot incident, Praia do Futuro is overlong, its grip slackening particularly in the latter Berlin scenes. It could use a shot of the pulsing momentum of the David Bowie song, “Heroes,” which is heard in English and German over the end credits. Music is used evocatively throughout, whether it’s French pop as Donato and Konrad settle into a sexy domestic groove, or the melancholy score by German composer Hauschka.

The three leads are strong, if inevitably impeded by the script’s refusal to provide more than impressionistic insights. Though even without much emotional access, gay audiences in particular should find it no hardship to watch these soulful, searching guys as they negotiate an understanding of themselves and one another.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Coracao da Selva, Hank Levine Film, DetailFilm, Watchmen Productions, in co-production with HBO Latin America Originals

Cast: Wagner Moura, Clemens Schick, Jesuita Barbosa, Savio Ygor Ramos, Sophie Charlotte Conrad,

Director: Karim Ainouz

Screenwriters: Felipe Braganca, Karim Ainouz

Producers: Georgia Costa Araujo, Hank Levine

Executive producers: Luciano Patrick, Andro Steinborn

Director of photography: Ali Olcay Gozcaya

Production designer: Marcos Pedroso

Music: Hauschka

Costume designer: Camila Soares

Editor: Isabella Monteiro de Castro

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 107 minutes