Shadow of the Past

in 16th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Ernesto Diezmartínez

The Rio do Janeiro International Film Festival has an overwhelming scope: over 350 films in 20 sections. However, Rio do Janeiro’s importance isn’t so much for its sheer size, but for its vast national cinema section called Premiere Brasil, in which 20 feature films — 10 fiction, and 10 documentaries — plus 28 short films were shown, proof of Brazilian cinema’s vitality in terms of quantity. All of which is not to say that the quality was poor.

Two of the best feature films presented in Premiere Brasil have thematic communication vessels that connect the past and the present of this vast country with over 200 million people.

“Obra” (Brazil, 2014), Gregorio Graziosi’s debut which was already presented some weeks ago in Toronto, rightfully won FIPRESCI’s award.

Starred in by the ubiquitous — and always excellent — Irandhir Santos, the movie is remarkable for its extremely controlled form and very pertinent themes. The young architect Joao Carlos (Santos), heir of a powerful construction company, is finally in charge of the first important project of his career. But when he starts on the foundations of the building that is to be constructed on a family property, the workers find a dozen buried corpses.

Joao Carlos has inherited from his bed-bound grandfather an intense back pain that turns even the most elementary of actions into a slow and frustrating ritual. Nevertheless, the uncovered corpses of the disappeared prove that there is something else that has been bestowed upon the architect, which he will in turn pass on to his newborn child.

If anything should be faulted in this first-time director it is the slowness of the dramatic progression of his debut movie. In any case, it is clear, through his controlled mise-en-scene (in black and white, with an irreproachable mastery of the long and static shots), that Graziosi knows well what he’s doing. In fact, Obra won Best Photography, an award granted to André Brendao.

Casa Grande (Brazil, 2014), Fellipe Barbosa’s second film (his first was 2001’s Laura), is much more conventional than Obra, especially in its functional form, although deep down it also offers a telling portrait of contemporary Brazil through a chronicle of the challenges that a wealthy family has to face in crisis. While Obra’s young architect has to deal with a somber family history — which is also the whole country’s — Casa Grande’s protagonist, the confused teenager Jean (the splendid Thales Cavalcanti), will learn to grow in what is an uncertain present for him, his family and the whole nation.

The film, which predictably won the Audience Award, is focused on the family that owns the big house of the film’s title, a spacious home in the most exclusive zone in Rio de Janeiro. The situation is more than complicated: the father, Hugo (Marcello Novaes, a Brazilian soap opera veteran), has lost his job at the bank, foresaking several clients whose money he had lost by managing their investments. Because of this, Rita (Gentil Cordeiro), the mother, a snobby housewife who speaks French to avoid being overheard by the maids, becomes a beauty product saleswoman for her high-class friends and clients.

Both teenage sons have their own problems, besides the obvious ones that everyone faces at that age: to grow up, mature and forge an identity. Nathalie (Alice Melo), the youngest, feels left out: no-one listens to her, no-one asks what she is thinking, and no-one cares what she wants. Meanwhile, Jean, the eldest at 17 years old, can’t choose his academic future correctly — he is about to drop out of high school — as his hormonal curiosity leads him to the maid’s room and, afterwards, towards a brief relationship with the attractive Luiza (Bruna Amaya). Although she doesn’t live in the favelas, Luiza doesn’t fit into Jean’s privileged life.

The differences between the mestiza Luiza — born from a Mulata and a Japanese — and the light-skinned Jean come to a head, perhaps too didactically, in a certain family reunion in which Luiza defends the recently approved affirmative action law that will ensure “dark-skinned people like her” an opportunity in a university while the white and rich people like Jean may lose their place in a country whose power balance is changing.

Film director Barbosa shifts skillfully between social allegory and conventional bildungsroman, between canny political commentary and well-constructed melodramatic twists in such a way that by the time the film ends, we have created quite a complex portrait of an ever-shifting Brazil, the same country that Jean is discovering, not only through his parents, but through his servants. In the end, it is clear that Jean has grown up enough. And, as usual, he has grown up in pain. But, also, with some pleasure.

Edited by Carmen Gray