There's Life in the Graveyard

in 29th Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Andrea Martini

Astonishment and surprise are two of the less frequent emotions that cinema can stir. The models that cinematography makes use of in its narrative, and their mise-en-scène, are becoming increasingly thin on the ground, leaving only few variations of what is essentially the same theme. This holds true for blockbusters just as for independent and art-house cinema. It follows that when one stumbles over a film that surprises, not for its theme or subject, but for the audacity of the project as a whole, the critic has to stop short, admire and dwell on not only the work in its entirety but also the emotion it aroused.

Brazil is itself a cultural melting pot, but what do you say about a film that unfolds throughout in a graveyard. One that is as funny as a black comedy and as light-hearted as a musical, with songs like a film by Jacques Demy and scary bits where will-o’-the-wisps light up sepulchers and tombs? Above all, if someone told you that the film – “Necropolis Symphony” (Sinfonia da Necrópole) – was a film that blows the whistle on the reconversion of graveyards, a cover in big cities for the most blatant building speculation, they would not far from the truth.  

Juliana Rojas had selected “Hard Labor” (Trabalhar cansa), that she co-directed with Marco Dutra, (received with some success in “Un Certain Régard”, Cannes 2011) as the pole star and narrative driving force of genre cross contamination. The unsettling atmosphere of fear with overtones of horror that haunted that first full-length feature film, casts a shadow over the drama of a family in which an unemployed husband has a stand-off with his shop-keeper wife. The ease and originality with which the conventions of the different genres are put to use were outstanding even then, but in this second film, Rojas proves her skill by honing the mechanism to perfection and delivering a much more eloquent work. The variations on the theme of graveyards have always been the preferred setting for despair and terror. They are the quintessence of things nocturnal, and the starting point for the blackest of sins. We are given to believe, instead, that the graveyard as it is used in terms of absolute space has no narrative stereotype, and is absolutely out of the ordinary and completely unique.

Shot entirely in a cemetery of a well-to-do area of São Paulo where family tombs and chapels stand in the shade of tree-lined avenues, Juliana Rojas’s eccentric film stages a merry band who are by no means fazed by the macabre setting. It comprises four conscientious gravediggers, a pleasant bureaucrat superintendent just as one would expect a likeable native of São Paulo to be, and a stout, highly unorthodox priest. The gravediggers’ shovels swing to the rhythm of the samba and at nightfall before going home, the rag-tag group sing the lines of the script on the steps on the church and in the superintendent’s office, the ascending and descending scales enhancing the musicality of the Portuguese. Not even the superintendent’s nephew, one Deodato (Edoardo Gomes), hired on a trial basis as a new gravedigger can make a dent in this harmony despite depression and fainting fits being the inescapable price he pays for his overflowing human empathy clouding his perception of the deceased.      

The word “Necropolis”, unusual for a modern cemetery is assonant with “Metropolis” which São Paulo undoubtedly is, and the problems of overcrowding and lack of space of the megalopolis are replicated inside the bounds of the graveyard. There is no longer sufficient land and the town government has ordered swathes of plots that are untended or very old to be repossessed to build wall-tombs – small-scale skyscrapers to house the dead. Space must be freed up and so, for a token recompense, the owners of more ordinary tombs have to agree to move the remains of their dear departed. The task is entrusted to an attractive young female executive, brimming over with confidence that she has what it takes to carry the project through. The idea of appointing the sensitive Deodato as assistant to Jacqueline (Luciana Paes), the beautiful new arrival (as arrive she does astride a fiery motorbike like some electronic Amazon) is a perfect opportunity for the superintendent uncle. Without ever seeming to set up a real conspiracy, the couple at work lend credibility to the purpose, confirming the conflict between genre-based conventions and the free and easy atmosphere of the narrative in which the occasional embrace serves to complement the musical score (see Almodovar).

The decision to couch the narrative in an anti-naturalist language is amply justified by the extraordinary skill with which the elements both surreal (the priest who covets non-consecrated hosts) and comical (the gags that spring from Deodato’s bumbling) are played out. It is more ironic nostalgia than coincidence that the title alludes to the 1929 film by Rudolph Rex Rustig and Adalberto Kemeny, “São Paulo, the Metropolis Symphony”, a kind of hymn to Brazil’s progress and modernity created alongside cinema pieces of the time dedicated to the likes of Berlin, New York and Moscow. Juliana Rojas has succeeded admirably writing a modern pop symphony in which the music weaves a tapestry in which the warp is able to give meaning to whatever bizarre weft it finds itself with. Whether in the funeral karaoke, or the nocturnal visions of the gravedigger manqué, or the building speculation or the absurd demands of municipal regulations, “Necropolis Symphony” is a delightful musical comedy. It has a vein of suspense and terror of the kind that only seen in works that take time, talent and skill to prepare.  

“Folks complain that life is hard and the only sure-fire thing is death” intone the gravediggers at the beginning of the film. It takes a minute for the audience to get it, but then it begins to take the bizarre and lop-sided in its stride in the natural perception of a universe in which, it is not dumb zombies that populate the world, but real, live singing people who reside in the home of the dead. Framed within a score that interweaves the music of São Paulo with fragments of jazz, Juliana Rojas’s second film blends genres, crosses patterns, frees itself of clichés (romantic, horror, pauperistic, comic, musical) and forges its own mould of continuous dynamism between flesh and bones, light and dark, laughter and smiles, song and dance. In addition to, obviously, life and death.

“Necropolis Symphony” is a musical comedy with no-frills but, instead, a thousand pleasant surprises, reminiscent of the bridled lightness of Demy and the passionate verve of the early Almodovar. It would be a great pity if instead of opening up to horizons that eclipse the cultural parochialism that sometimes hobbles Latin-American cinema, it were to remain bound within narrow confines. Film festivals, both large and small, serve to bring down boundaries that are more constructs of taste than culture.

Edited by Steven Yates