'Time Was Endless' ('Antes o tempo nao acabava'): Film Review

Time Was Endless  still 1 - Anderson Tikuna -H 2016
Courtesy of Yure Cesar
... but most viewers will have better things to do.

Fabio Baldo and Sergio Andrade team up for this look at a queer Brazilian suspended between tradition and modernity.

An Amazon Indian tries to survive in the urban jungle of the Brazilian metropolis Manaus in Time Was Endless (Antes o tempo nao acabava), the first feature-length collaboration from filmmaker Sergio Andrade (Jonathas’ Forest) and editor, sound designer and shorts director Fabio Baldo. Though the story manages to convey something of the push-and-pull dynamics that occur between the forest and the city, between tradition and modernity and between rigid ancient customs and free will, the storytelling is frequently too opaque to make more than just rudimentary points, while its moments of documentary-like poetry are too few to make up for the weak narrative backbone. A Berlinale Panorama premiere, this will travel to festivals interested in indigenous stories and Brazilian cinema, though as a commercial proposition, it's a rather marginal affair.

Anderson (Anderson Tikuna) is a young man with long black hair who is an assembly-line worker in a factory in Manaus, the sprawling metropolis that’s home to over two million people in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest. He belongs to the Tikuna tribe and lives with several Tikuna on the edge of the city, near the forest. He shares a rudimentary shack made of bricks and planks with his sister (Kay Sara) and her daughter (Ana Sabrina). Because the latter is handicapped, they are afraid the tribe’s elders and shamans will come for them — some Native Brazilians believe that disabled children need to be sacrificed — and as the film wears on, it becomes clear the tribesmen are interested in Anderson too, because he doesn’t seem to be a straight arrow.

The information in the previous paragraph, however, isn’t all neatly laid out in the film but rather needs to be inferred from the often rather silent characters’ behavior. The fact Anderson and his sister are siblings, for example, is not immediately clear, so it would be reasonable to assume, since they share a home, that they were married and his niece was actually his child. So Anderson’s habit of going out at night and hooking up with men such as the hunky boatman (Bege Muniz, who appeared, like Tikuna, in Andrade’s first feature) initially registers as rather confusing. It takes a while for all these elements to fall into place and sort out how everyone is related and what they want from life and from each other. It doesn’t help the filmmaking style is almost documentarian, with Baldo (also credited with the screenplay) and Andrade always privileging simple observation over (explanatory) dialogue.

An early sequence shows an 11-year-old Anderson (Thiago Almeida) at an initiation ceremony involving ants that the tribe’s elders believe needs to be repeated in adulthood. It involves a mitt made from dry leaves to which red ants, which are initially knocked out with some kind of potion, are attached at regular intervals. When they come to their senses, one assumes they work their magic on whoever has inserted their hand into the contraption, though in keeping with the film’s documentary-like style, the exact working isn’t explained and the camera just observes the ceremony as if it were shooting an anthropological film. The child and adult versions of the enigmatic ritual thus retain something of their shamanistic power, so the lack of explanations may be intentional. But since the ceremony also seems to be the source of some disagreement between the elderly tribesmen and Anderson, it would help to understand the particulars of it. Is it a simple rite-of-passage ritual or something more specific related to manhood (which would explain why they believe queer Anderson would need to do it again)?

These elaborate and inscrutable rituals contrast with (for Western viewers) more familiar life in the big city, where Anderson assembles electronic appliances for a living and then suddenly becomes a hairdresser, though why he got the job and/or whether he’s had any previous experience is not clear, either. The hairdressing job at least places him somewhere midway between modernity and ancient customs (as well as in a position that’s stereotypically associated with gay men), though it’s never quite clear how the largely passive Anderson feels about all this.

The enigmatically titled film — how can something be in the past tense if it's endless? — has a few impressive moments that get by on sheer intensity and are semi-abstract and mostly wordless, including an encounter in a metal club and the closing sequence, which takes places on the flat expanse of the river, where body movements express unspoken desires and the characters are just engaged in feeling very much alive. How these moments relate to Anderson’s character or his goals, however, is a question that the filmmakers never manage to answer.

Production companies: Rio Taruma Films, 3 Moinhos Producoes, Autentika Films
Cast: Anderson Tikuna, Severiano Kedassere, Fidelis Baniwa, Kay Sara, Ana Sabrina, Rita Carelli, Begemuniz, Emmanuel Aragao, Arnaldo Barreto
Directors: Sergio Andrade, Fabio Baldo
Screenplay: Sergio Andrade
Producers: Ana Alice de Morais, Sergio Andrade
Co-producers: Paulo Carvalho, Gudula Meinzolt
Director of photography: Yure Cesar
Production designer: Oscar Ramos
Costume designer: Adroaldo Pereira
Editor: Fabio Baldo
Sales: UDI

Not rated, 83 minutes