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February 10, 2019

Berlin Review: ‘Querência’ Takes a Docudrama Look at the Life of a Brazilian Cowboy

You don’t have to look much further than the definition of the title to understand writer/director Helvécio Marins Jr.’s goals with Querência. Its English translation is “homing” and actually does a good job at getting to the heart of its Spanish metaphysics. The former deals with an animal’s ability to return to a destination after being far away — like a trained pigeon. The latter goes deeper into metaphor, springboarding off its usage in bullfighting terms (the place a bull goes to feel safe within the ring) towards a psychological state of mind. Like the animal feeds on that specific spot’s comfort to draw strength, we as humans become energized in certain environments that helped shape our identity. They define us so we can preserve our most authentic selves.

For Marcelo (Marcelo Di Souza) it’s the rural expanses of Brazil’s Minas Gerais region nearby the Urucuia River. This is where he grew up to be raised as a cowboy, herding sows and training horses on farmland with the occasional rodeo festivities for added fun. It’s a lifestyle that has become a part of who he is — something his younger sister Márcia (Márcia Rosa) couldn’t share before moving to the city. She speaks about loving to visit because it reminds her of whom she is regardless of how little a role it continues to play in her present. The simplicity of it, the beauty of it, and its idyllic promise of spirituality are all commendable, but also byproducts of an existence that might prove more confining than free.

Her brother never felt that way until recently being made a robbery victim. A vast number of the cattle housed on the farm where he works and lives were stolen at gunpoint, leaving him depressed, scared, and lost as to whether it’s all worth the struggle. Maybe he too could be like Márcia and hold this land with reverie as a piece of his soul rather than the entirety of his skin. Because if he can’t feel safe in the place that used to be an extension of his body, how can he remain? When the police threaten to arrest those like him who must hunt and feed off the land when times are tough as though they’re killing for sport, have the old ways truly been preserved?

Marcelo is therefore at a crossroads, his faith in a way of life shaken. But he isn’t alone. He has his local friends in similar boats like Kaic (Kaic Lima) and Branco. The trio discusses what it means to reside in this part of the country while corrupt politics overtake the cities. They talk about the robbery, laugh about “happy hours,” and try their best to stay within a positive state of mind. It’s tough, though, with Marcelo having to sell the livestock he has left in order to plan a move away from the place that haunts his nightmares. He’s shedding much of who he was and yet hope somehow arises from what endures. Because removing himself from the farm isn’t taking the farm out of him.

Marins Jr. has entered this world in a way that conjures similarities to Chloé Zhao and her acclaimed film The Rider. He’s found residents of the area with their own dramatic stories that he can use to delicately weave this almost documentary-like depiction of Minas Gerais. The real Marcelo was actually a victim of one of the region’s largest robberies in history and thus knows the complex emotions that come out of that situation. So he’s able to lend that experience to the character and draw us closer to the decisions he’s making. The sadness in his eyes when thinking about this chapter turn is something from deep within him just like the excitement emanating from his smile when picking up the microphone to MC a rodeo.

It’s the latter that provides Marcelo’s rebirth. With all the uncertainty swirling around his future, he still possesses this unquantifiable reprieve from tragedy. We watch as he and Kaic craft their “pump up the crowd” raps, letting their creative outlet distract themselves from those things that are outside of their control. They’re working towards something big even if we don’t yet know what, hopeful that it will reignite their love of this land. So we languish within Marcelo’s malaise, question the myriad options he might have to escape his current plight, and embrace the release of tension when the fun of writing or riding oil cans on springs appear to break up the heavy drama. Marcelo worries the robbery took more than livestock. Soon he’ll discover the truth.

Where then is his “home?” Is it the Urucuia River, the cattle ranch, or simply the feeling he gets representing both those things for strangers out to watch the best a cowboy life has to offer without any of the social or economic issues following close behind? Marcelo becomes the bull in this rodeo ring, bucking off his troubles and anxieties until reaching the podium to enthrall his audience with his enthusiastic words. Stripped of his farmhand clothing and weariness, Marcelo affixes his gold belt buckle and swagger to position himself as more than a simple laborer working tirelessly for someone else’s benefit. That confidence can even inspire him to look into the crowd and find his assailant. This time, though, he won’t back down.

There’s a lot happening with Querência despite such a dedicated through-line of Marcelo’s determination rising from his insecurities. It can get confusing at times with scenes from the robbery randomly cutting in (I sometimes thought Marcelo was stealing someone else’s cattle to recoup his loss when it was just his mind torturing itself with the memory) and seemingly disjointed vignettes of a woman we never actually meet (one time bathed in an impossible spotlight with meaning I simply wasn’t prepared to comprehend). But I think these instances are merely Marins Jr.’s way of showing Marcelo’s internal war to see whether the bad outweighs the good of what rural Brazil has given him. Is his pain enough to join a majority of his country in forgetting this life? Let’s hope not.

Querência premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

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