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January 12, 2018

Brazilian Drama ‘Vazante’ Is An Assured Debut From Daniela Thomas [Review]

With rewards for patient viewers, Daniela Thomas‘ solo directorial debut is a spare, solemn drama filmed in black-and-white long takes that allow audiences to dwell in her characters’ plights with them. Set in Brazil in 1821, “Vazante” (“The Surge“) explores the roles that gender and race played in the colonial era in the South American country, with only the ruling white men having real power and agency.

After the death of his first wife Naninha (Dinah Feldman) in childbirth, Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) takes her young niece, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), as his next at the encouragement of her indebted family. She’s so young, in fact, that she hasn’t even had her first period when they initially wed. Antonio’s work as a slave trader takes him away from his farm and new bride shortly after their marriage begins, leaving her alone with his own slaves and her mother-in-law (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha). A hierarchy exists on the property and among his property, with Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira) reigning over his fellow slaves and threatening to break the strong-willed. Beatriz finds the sole solace in her isolation through kinship with another teenager, Virgílio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), but his status as a black slave complicates the perception of their connection, including among his peers.

Like Chantal Akerman‘s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” “Vazante” fully immerses the audience in the monotony and boredom of Beatriz’s life, save for her relationship with Virgílio. The pace is deliberately slow, moving at the speed of that century’s horses and foot traffic, rather than our own’s gasoline-fueled tempo. Thomas’ historical drama isn’t driven by plot, dialogue or even its characters; instead, it is focused on the feelings of loneliness and desire. Written by Thomas and Beto Amaral, this Brazilian film is firmly grounded in reality – particularly in its depiction of the details of farming and the horrors of slavery – but it somehow also has the air of a fairy tale.

Beatriz, Virgílio, his mother (Jai Baptista) and Antonio are more than simply their characters. They’re archetypes that also point toward the larger social stratification in 19th-century Brazil and the implications for women and black men, but they still feature nuance and shape in their details. A lot of this is due to perfect casting. As Antonio, Carvalho’s mournful eyes add depth to a role that might have been simply monstrous in another movie. Born in 2003, Nastas doesn’t have to work to communicate Beatriz’s youth, but the quiet performance brings us into her solitude and then her awakening as she grows closer to Dos Anjos’ devoted Virgílio.

Thomas previously teamed with other directors, most notably Walter Salles on “Linha de Passe,” “Midnight” and “Foreign Land,” but “Vazante” marks her first time behind the camera alone. With those decades of experience in mind, this film never feels like a debut. She’s sure of each of her choices, especially around the visuals. Not only is the film in black and white, but it takes a classical, more formal approach in its framing. “Vazante” is presented in 2.39:1, with that extra bit of real estate giving scale and scope in the wide shots from cinematographer Inti Briones. There’s no score, so our aural focus is on the sound of birds’ songs, the patters of rain and the sparse dialogue.

With the deliberate pacing and spare approach, some audiences may find “Vazante” and its austerity a taxing experience, particularly in its first half. But just as Virgílio awakens Beatriz, we’re drawn into both their worlds for the remainder of the movie. The film’s final shot leaves each character as well as the audience in agony, though it feels like the inevitable, tragic result of the choices made throughout the film. [B]

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