Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review: Vidas Secas

Vidas Secas (1963, Nelson Pareira dos Santos)

A simple, very straightforward film about a Brazilian family and their search for land and work to survive a harsh and bitter life.

What I thought director dos Santos does well is set the mood of the film, as well as make clear to the viewer what kind of situation the family finds itself in. With the help of a fairly minimalist camera style, the suffocating heat of the region, the dryness of the region, and the desperation of the husband and wife are well set up. From the get go it was clear, to me at least, that this was going to be a rather bleak enterprise, tonally speaking (certainly not visually since the sun scorches the earth pretty much throughout with the exception of a couple scenes).

With knowledge that the plight of the ordinary peasant is a common theme that runs almost unanimously throughout 20th century Latin American history, I appreciated the hand held camera cinematography. It provided a documentary feeling to the film. This is an issue that comes up often I find these days when discussing film. Certain people are tired of that style, others like it. I've always been on the fence about it. I imagine it depends on what the story is, what the context of the film is. Here, because the film is set very much in reality, I thought the style did the movie a favor. I was easily caught up in this world, a world I'd never want to live in, but one that interests me nonetheless. I was very much into seeing the more simple moments. The family cooking, walking, hearding the cows and the goats and so on. Certainly there wasn't much occuring that took my breath away in terms of storytelling, but there was an authenticity to the simpler moments that worked well. Again, it comes back to this faux documentary style where everything is played very real and genuinely feels very real. Beila, the dog of the family that follows them almost everywhere they go, performs some really nice tricks near the end of the film after being shot. Therefore in terms of mood and cinematography, the film works wonders. Even the editing and the cutting from shot to shot is a bit rough around the edges at times, and that too added this bitter but ultimately convincing flavour to the material.

I mentioned earlier about certain heavy handed moments. Well, I didn't like too much the night sequence when the father is in jail while there is some kind of celebration happening simultaneously outside his jail cell. That moment felt a bit too forced for my taste ('Look, look at this awful juxtaposition between what the poor go through and what the more wealthy are privy to!' Yeah, that didn't quite work for me). Another maligned scene in discussions I've had about the film was when the father behaves like a simple minded fool and goes through with the brilliant idea of gambling with what little earnings they have. I know that it is the police officer that invites him to do so, but I still would agree that it's an unnecessary moment. There were probably other catalysts the writers could have conjured up to raise the stakes. This one felt a bit lazy for all intents and purposes.

There is a scene involving a young lad, one of the two sons, comparing the landscape to hell, that probably encapsulates how testing some of these scenes are for the audience in terms of adequate writing and competent storytelling. It isn't the greatest piece of cinema ever put to a film cell, but I'd hesitate before completely dismissing it. As is plainly established just before, the boy does not know what hell is. When his mother provides him with a brief, albeit poignant resume of what the place is, he steps outside to relax in the shade with the dog. It is then that he makes the connection between what his mother told him hell was and the region they work and toll in. It's a bit of a double edged sword. While I felt that for the character, the young boy, the scene was strong, I admit that for an audience member, one can just feel the director trying to spoon feed us a very obvious message that anyone with half a brain can pick up from the third frame of the film. Still, I liked the idea of the boy coming to this realization. Had it been the father or the mother who stepped outisde and murmured some mumbo jumbo about the region strangely resembling hell, then I'd probably really dislike that scene.

In conclusion, I'd say the film strengths lie in how dos Santos establishes the right tone for the story. The weaknesses lie in how that story is told. I'm forgiving those short comings however. Essentially there was more here that I liked than disliked, which is more than enough to satisfy me and make me recommend it to anyone else.

No comments: