'Unremember' ('Deslembro'): Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Delicate storytelling struggles with big themes of memory and identity.

When a teenage girl’s family moves back to her birthplace in Brazil, she discovers a world full of memories in Flavia Castro’s feature debut.

It’s hard to pin down the genre-bending Unremember (Deslembro), a film that touches on many themes without really settling on one. It isn’t a political film about the opponents to Brazil’s military dictatorship who were made to vanish from the earth without a trace, nor is it a family drama, or even primarily a coming-of-age tale or love story. Flavia Castro’s graceful feature debut blends all of these classic elements in a pleasurable watch, but one that never goes far enough to set the story on fire. It often feels autobiographical and those considerations may have limited its dramatic intensity. Still, as a first film co-produced by Walter Salles, it’s a respectable effort that should find more festival support after its bow in Venice Horizons.

Teen rebel Joana (Jeanne Boudier) and her two younger half-brothers have grown up in multi-cultural Paris with their left-wing mom (Sara Antunes) and her simpatico companion Luis (Julian Marras). When they announce the family is moving back to Brazil, Joana furiously rips up her new passport and flushes it down the toilet. But it doesn’t stop the inevitable, and we next find her adapting to life in a crowded apartment in Rio de Janeiro.

The time is 1979 and the military dictatorship has just passed an amnesty law allowing exiled political activists like her parents to return. The law also means that those in the junta who violated human rights will escape prosecution, however, and Luis, who is from Chile, is involved in a never-ending onslaught of international political meetings debating the situation. Castro ultimately lauds his fervor and commitment, though it means he often neglects his young son Paco for the cause, which he holds to be more important than keeping the family together. It’s a situation that mirrors Joana's and her missing father.

As she explores the worlds of literature and adolescence, her first love, her first joint, she also awakens politically. Brazil stirs up disturbing childhood memories that seem to have a bearing on her father’s disappearance. She meets her paternal grandmother (warmly portrayed by Eliane Giardini), a determined woman brimming with courage who has never given up searching for information about the fate of her son, Joana’s father. Like many relatives of the desaparecidos murdered by the junta's torturers, she is unable to find out where he died. Joana becomes obsessed with the idea he's still alive. But like other threads running through the film, this mystery tangent doesn’t take us too far.

Castro is good at showing how tightly knit Joana’s family is, how full of love and warmth, despite raised voices and the fact that each kid has a different father or mother. The admirable esprit du corps of this patchwork family is highlighted in a final farewell that leaves a bittersweet taste, after Luis makes a decision that could mean they will never see him again. It echoes the heart-rending scene of Paco’s mother saying goodbye to her infant son, when that family is torn apart by politics.

The whole cast is vivid, both the adults and the children, but it is young Boudier’s energy that brings Joana so forcefully to life. With many characters singing songs together, it’s not surprising that music, like Lou Reed’s Transformer album and The Doors’ “People Are Strange," plays a major role in shaping the girl's personality.

Production companies: Video-Filmes, Tacaca Filmes, Flauk Filmes, Les Films du Poisson
Cast: Jeanne Boudier, Hugo Abranches, Sara Antunes, Eliane Giardini, Julian Marras,  Arthur Raynaud, Jesuita Barbosa
Director-screenwriter: Flavia Castro
Producers: Walter Salles, Gisela Camara, Flavia Castro, Yael Fogiel
Director of photography: Heloisa Passos
Production designer: Ana Paula Cardosa
Costume designer: Renata Russo
Editors: Francois Gedigier, Flavia Castro
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
World sales: Loco Films

96 minutes