'Waiting for the Carnival': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
Denim-focused documentary stitches a rich seam of humanity.

Marcelo Gomes' documentary travels to an unusual town in Brazil's northeast.

Having established himself among Brazil's most noteworthy filmmakers with features like the superlative Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica (2012) and Berlinale competition title Joaquim (2016), writer-director Marcelo Gomes now segues smoothly from fiction to documentary features with Waiting for the Carnival (Estou Me Guardando Para Quando O Carnaval Chegar).

An easy-going, empathetic portrait of a small town in the country's northeast, which is almost entirely dominated by the production of jeans, the film is a first-person travelogue in which the director — with disarming openness and evident fondness for his hard-working but underpaid subjects — retraces the steps of his youth. Further festival and later small-screen play looks likely in the wake of its well-received bow in the Panorama section of the German event, especially given the revived global focus on all matters Brazilian recently triggered by the sudden rise to power of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.

With his rabid hostility to all things "socialistic," including labor unions and workers' rights, Bolsonaro would surely approve of practices in Toritama. This settlement of 40,000 is tucked away in a seldom-filmed zone of Brazil known as the Agreste, a "dry and poor" corner of the country. The vast bulk of garment-production takes place in small units, mini-factories converted from domestic dwellings known as "factions." Self-employment is the norm, there is no organized labor, the toil goes on for long hours from morning to night each day including Sunday, payment is by piece-work and the only holiday in the year is an eight-day break for the carnival, when almost the entire population heads to the seaside.

It's a kind of turbo-capitalism that would be very familiar to industrial workers in Europe and North America during the 19th century, but will now strike many observers as quaint, exploitative or even alarmingly dystopian. No words of complaint are recorded by Gomes' cameras, however, as the folk of Toritama get on with their "endless work." They chat away amiably to their curious visitor — who first came here decades ago in the company of his tax-inspector father. Now he is present as "an inspector of other people's time," Gomes is never seen but often heard, commenting on the practicalities of his own film's production and even musing aloud about particular editing choices.

Moving from faction to faction, Gomes delights in the eccentricities of local characters such as goat-herder Canario and the bling-bedecked "Gold Man." But gradually one Toritama resident, exactly the kind of protagonist of which all documentarians dream, emerges as the star of the show. First spotted napping in between shifts, Leo dos Santos is a sleepy-eyed, tousle-haired dude in his late twenties who looks like a cross between Lukas Haas and Casey Affleck and who beguilingly alternates between sleepy languor and live-wire dynamism.

Like everyone else in Toritama, the mercurially charismatic Leo spends his whole year looking forward to the carnival; hence the title, taken from a classic 1970s tune by legendary musician Chico Buarque, a version of which plays over the end credits. And like nearly all of his neighbors and co-workers, Leo — a perpetually in-demand jack-of-all-trades equally adept at garment work and bricks-and-mortar construction — somehow hasn't saved enough money to actually pay for the trip from his wages.

"We strike a deal," Gomes confides: The director will pay for Leo and his family's holiday, and Leo will take one of the crew's cameras with him and record the festivities for the purposes of the film. Other workers in the "Capital of Jeans" have to sell televisions and valuable possessions to fund their carnival week. This strongly suggests that while the manufacture of denim clothing (Toritama yields around 20 percent of Brazil's output) may be a great way of filling the hours and maintaining a form of community spirit, it's a lousy way of actually earning a living.

Gomes doesn't investigate any of these avenues himself, however, instead concentrating on chronicling an unusual economic-anthropological phenomenon with patience, humor and unquestioning warmth. The technical aspects are impressively slick; the offscreen MVP is sound designer Nicolau Domingues, who finds strains of harsh, urgent music amid the incessant throb of machinery. Widescreen images by cinematographer Pedro Andrade provide pungently atmospheric images of a city of an unpromisingly industrial demeanor. Editor Karen Harley — who has worked several times with Gomes and more recently cut Lucrecia Martel's critical smash Zama (2017) — maintains engaging rhythms over the course of a brisk-feeling 86 minutes. That said, the aching slowness of the opening titles, with their endless funding-body logos, are an unfortunate, patience-taxing curtain-raiser.

Production company: Carnaval Filmes
Director-screenwriter: Marcelo Gomes
Producers: Joao Vieira Jr, Nara Aragao
Cinematographer: Pedro Andrade
Editor: Karen Harley
Music: O Grivo
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv

In Portuguese
86 minutes