The Descent By Marco Antonio Barbosa

in 8th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Marco Antonio Barbosa

Winner of the International Critics’ Award at the Festival do Rio (Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival), Heitor Dhalia’s Drained (O cheiro do ralo) could seem shocking to some, boring to others or simply way too sickening. None of those “quirks” weakens the subversive, dark humor of the picture, or its striking originality.

Lourenço Mutarelli, author of the novel from which the film was adapted, has not only an impressive record as a writer of graphic novels; he’s also struggled with mental disturbances, and been in and out of psychiatric institutions. His history runs vividly through Drained, which follows the life of the main character – named, not coincidentally, Lourenço.

Lourenço (played by Selton Mello, one the foremost names in Brazilian film acting these days) exploits poor and desperate people to earn his living – buying used objects for pennies, in order to re-sell them. The schizoid ambivalence of his feelings towards his “customers” is one of the main subjects of the film. Lourenço (the character, not the author) feels pleasure in taking advantage of the people who come to sell him stuff. But he also feels strangely attached to them, on an almost sadomasochistic level that compensates for his total alienation from human contact on a personal level.

Not only does our protagonist have to deal with this colorful collective of desperate folks, but two very distinct obsessions are growing increasingly larger in his life: He’s fixated on a waitress at the diner where he eats lunch – fixated, more specifically, on her behind. And he also can’t stop thinking about the awful smell that comes from the drain in his office restroom. Eventually, he comes to believe the stinking drain is, in fact, a portal leading to Hell.

This tale of moral – and physical, and psychological – decay is conducted with a deliberate, sometimes almost morose pace, by director Dhalia. The story could very well be the stuff of tragedy, but a surreal sense of humor pe rmeates the film, inviting the viewer to share the strange way Lourenço sees the world – even if it never encourages the audience to see him sympathetically.

Much as Lourenço regards his clients, we’re repulsed by this man’s behavior and his utter lack of humanity. But we also cannot help but be fascinated by the intricate (and, ultimately, funny) way his mind works. A wonderful cast of character actors helps Mello in this task – each one bringing, in succession, a pathetic and/or bizarre little drama to be crushed by Lourenço’s cynicism.

In one of the best scenes, a guy tries to sell to Lourenço a piece of dirty paper containing Steve McQueen’s autograph. Lourenço refuses to buy the autograph, saying he doesn’t care about movies. Yet, in the very same scene, among the piles of old and rejected stuff he accumulates on his deposit, lies a full-sized poster of Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, starring… Steve McQueen! The scene is a good example of the picture’s sometimes subtle, sometimes harsh, always striking humor: We get to laugh, but we can also sense the alienation and lack of purpose of the protagonist’s existence.

Dhalia’s screenplay, written in collaboration with screenwriter and novelist Marçal Aquino, manages to manipulate our emotions without ever presenting a character with whom we can identify – but always letting us sense the hollowness of the protagonist’s inner self.

Presenting itself in a very stark, sparse way – almost all the action occurs at Lourenço’s office – the film nevertheless conveys the same urban dread that dominates masterpieces like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, inviting us to sense the loneliness, the lack of significant human contact and the grating feeling of being alone in the world, even when surrounded by a crowd. And when things start to fall apart, leading to a cathartic showdown of violence, we can almost feel sorry for Lourenço. But only almost.