In a statement in the press kit of “Vazante,” Brazilian director Daniela Thomas describes her country as “perhaps, the most miscegenated people on the planet.” Fifty percent of Brazilians have some African blood, and official versions of its history often claim it has achieved some kind of “post-racial” harmony.
But slavery ended there more than 20 years after it did in the US, and the country now has a worse record than the US for police killings of black people. While a kind of closeness between whites and blacks that escapes the worst problems of isolation and total segregation comes across in “Vazante,” the film never lets one forget the horrible power imbalance — both in race and gender terms — underpinning all this. In addition to slaves not yet having been freed, white Brazilians were still governed by Portugal at the time of the film’s 1821 setting. Ironically, “Vazante” is a co-production between Portugal and Brazil: the two countries’ close relationship persists to this day.
Shot in black and white and using a screen ratio slightly wider than Cinemascope, “Vazante” recreates the look of a 19th century photograph rather than an old movie. It has a sense of distance and detachment rare to conventional period pieces, without going anywhere near as far as Peter Watkins’ “Edvard Munch” or Roberto Rossellini’s “The Rise Of Louis XIV.” Paradoxically, Thomas shoots cruelty in a very beautiful style, but this never seems hypocritical since the cinematography retains the same eye-popping quality no matter what’s happening onscreen.
Daniela Thomas’ visually rich tale of colonial Brazil explores race, class, and gender
Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) married into a family that owns a decrepit estate. In the film’s early scenes, he heads home accompanied by slaves and mules. His wife is pregnant, and expecting to greet her he instead learns she and her fetus died during labor. His place is taken by his brother-in-law and his family. The slaves who live there find their uneasy peace disturbed by new arrivals from Africa. The two groups don’t speak the same language, and “Vazante” doesn’t subtitle the latter’s speech, which I thought was a technical error at first. Antonio winds up marrying his 12-year-old niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), his brother-in-law’s daughter, although she is barely old enough to menstruate.
The sound design is uncommonly central to “Vazante,” and something that seems to benefit from a theatrical setting. Thomas builds her narrative leisurely and carefully, and she uses little speech. Her characters don’t seem particularly articulate, and even the white men appear to feel as though they speak a language that doesn’t truly belong to them. As Antonio heads home with his mules, their bells ring and their hooves clog away.
In an odd way, “Vazante” reminds me of another Latin American film directed by a woman: Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s “La Ciénaga.” Martel depicted a contemporary upper middle class family going to seed in the summertime. There’s a near-sculptural quality to the direction and cinematography of “Vazante.” Thomas’ work is very immersive. If it connects with any tradition in Brazilian cinema I’ve seen, it evokes the ‘60s Cinema Novo films that intersected with Westerns. But the sense of youthful anger that powered the work of filmmakers like Glauber Rocha is much more diffuse here. There’s a sense in “Vazante” that Brazil went wrong at its founding due to the original sin of slavery and that miscegenation could have repaired this. But despite all the death, misery, and abuse of women (including girls) depicted here, Thomas’ film has a relatively mellow tone.
The use of natural locations also recalls the ways the landscape in Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” gradually turns into a reflection of its protagonist’s psychological space. I don’t think Thomas created or faked any of the rock formations she shot, but she selected ones that resonate with the narrative. She also creates a potent evocation of a crumbling aristocracy. On the cusp of Brazilian independence, something is about to replace people like Antonio, even if that happenstance doesn’t lead to real freedom or the end of racism. Thomas has made three features in collaboration with Walter Salles, best known in the US for the rather middlebrow “Central Station” and “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and several shorts and directed the opening of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to try and represent Brazil on a world stage. “Vazante” is another go at that ambitious goal, one reflecting the fact that its director has degrees in both history and cinema.
VAZANTE | Directed by Daniela Thomas | Music Box Films | In Portuguese with English subtitles | Opens Jan. 12 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com
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