Xingu: Berlin Film Review

Uneven epic of 20th century Brazilian history is a frustratingly missed opportunity.

Director-writer Cao Hamburger's epic drama follows three Brazilian brothers and their lives in the tribe Xingu.

Three Brazilian brothers find their vocation among the nation's indigenous tribes in Xingu, a strangely stilted stab at an inspirationally epic ethnography. Awkwardly condensing more than 20 years into a running-time well under two hours, director/co-writer Cao Hamburger needs a bigger canvas for his well-intentioned but underpowered saga which launched at the Amazonas Film Festival in Manaus last November. The presence of internationally-renowned director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) as co-producer might help open a few festival doors overseas, but this is overall undistinguished fare that will struggle anywhere other than Portuguese-speaking markets.

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In the early 1940s, 26-year-old Claudio (João Miguel) and 24-year-old Leonardo Villas-Bôas (Caio Blat) pose as illiterate manual-laborers - the reasons for this deception are never specified - to take part in the Brazilian government's ambitious "march west." The plan was to "take control" of the deeply-forested sertão hinterland by building new cities and infrastructure - including a futuristic capital, Brasilia.

Claudio is filled with energetic wanderlust, his voice-over speaking of his wish "to walk where no-one has walked" and experience "a life in the wild," the only place where these educated city-dwellers can "be free". Soon the duo are joined by older brother Orlando (Felipe Camargo), whose abrupt appearance is just the first of Xingu's many jarring leaps of chronology and lapses of explanation.

The adventurous Villas-Bôas boys - Leonardo the hot-head, Orlando the voice of experience, Claudio emerging as a natural leader - are soon promoted to key positions, and it's they who are among the first to encounter the area's diverse indigenous populations. The tricky interface between the Brazilian authorities and the natives - with the Villas-Bôas acting as concerned intermediaries - provides Xingu with much of its drama, as the mechanized march of progress threatens to wipe out much of the area's rich cultural and ethnic composition.

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But while the story of the Villas-Bôas brothers and their founding of what was to become South America's biggest National Park emphatically deserves wider attention, Hamburger (best known for 2006's The Year My Parents Went on Vacation) and his collaborators struggle to find a way to turn this into a coherent, organic cinematic form. Highly-capable DP Adriano Goldman's cinematography of the stunningly lush landscape - which, with its churning rivers recalls Werner Herzog's Amazon classic Fitzcarraldo - is a consistent plus, but it's placed at the service of a choppily episodic picture which seems to have fundamental flaws in either the screenplay or the editing - or perhaps both.

On-screen captions inform us where and when the action is taking place, often jumping ahead several years between sequences with disorienting results - it's too easy lose track of chronology. Hamburger resorts to the most clichéd of ways to deliver exposition: the screen fills with mocked-up newspapers, very few of which look anything like convincing recreations of contemporary publications.

The death of one major figure occurs off-screen with only a two-word explanation ("his heart..."), while later on Claudio suddenly appears with wife and child - the spouse, like all the females in this boys'-own story, barely registering as a character. The Xingu region, meanwhile, evidently boasts magical anti-ageing powers - the Villas-Bôas brothers' appearance barely changes over the course of 20 years, as we follow them from the WWII period until what would appear to be the mid-sixties.

A coda shows then video-footage of the surviving brothers from the 1970s - and we're informed that in 1971 they were "indicated" for the Nobel Peace Prize, whatever that means. The clear implication is that they won this honor - which, although they were clearly deserving, did not actually occur. But then again, why let the facts get in the way of hagiography?

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 15, 2012.
Production company: 02 Filmes
Cast: João Miguel, Felipe Camargo, Caio Blat, Maiarim Kaiabi, Tumã Kaiabi
Director: Cao Hamburger
Screenwriters: Cao Hamburger, Anna Muylaert, Elena Soarez
Producers: Fernando Meirelles, Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Bel Berlinck
Director of photography: Adriano Goldman
Production designer: Cassio Amarante
Costumes: Verônica Julian
Editor: Gustavo Giani
Music: Beto Villares
Sales Agent: Rezo, Paris
No rating, 102 minutes.