Friday, March 20, 2009

Vidas Secas: Brazil’s Grapes of Wrath

Vidas Secas
New Yorker Films // 1963 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

The pitch:
A poor Brazilian family staggers across the South American wasteland in this Cinema Novo variation on The Grapes of Wrath.

Nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1964, this bleak yet visually stunning film is notable for razor-sharp black-and-white cinematography. Vidas Secas (from the Portuguese, “barren lives” ) presents the utter hopelessness of starving people too weak and unfocused even to consider revolting against a government that has ignored and abandoned them.

A bit of plot…
Title card: 1940. Fabiano (Átila Iório) and his destitute family roam the desert in Northeast Brazil, scratching for food as they search for a better life in the city, though what they seek seems forever on the horizon. Their pet dog Baleia hops along at the edge of the trail. Fabiano carries a water sack, black-powder rifle, and the family’s few meager possessions. His wife Sinhá (Maria Ribeiro), holds a parrot tethered to a cage slung over her shoulder. The bird squawks relentlessly in the blistering sun. Their children stagger along like zombies, staring ahead, seldom talking.

Needing food for their children's empty bellies, Sinhá declares the parrot to be “good for nothing” and swiftly snaps its neck. The tiny fowl makes a pitiful morsel roasting over a brush fire. Sinhá dreams of finding a home, a sense of place and purpose, but mostly she talks of owning a leather bed, which would satisfy a desire for her family to become “real people.”

One of their little boys collapses from sun stroke. Ever stoic, Fabiano pokes the child with his rifle barrel to get him moving.

The father finds work as a farmhand, but a misunderstanding leads to a beating and a jail cell, where a fellow prisoner encourages Fabiano to join a guerilla movement that will fight the oppressive government. Instead, Fabiano, knowing no other way of life, rejoins his family and together they continue their trek across the desert, where more suffering awaits.

Historical Significance, Context
This film plays like an endless walk across Hell, through a desolate land where the poverty is so absolute that mustering any hope seems like a ludicrously naïve waste of time.

Students of Italian neorealism (Bicycle Thieves, Pickpocket, The Children are Watching Us) will marvel at its influence in Vidas Secas, filmed a continent away in the wastelands of Brazil, where the documentary style focuses on miserable wretches trying to eke out an existence on a desert land of rock, desiccated earth, and petrified forests.

Written and directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Tent of Miracles), who was active in Brazilian cinema well into his seventies, this picture was adapted from the novel by Graciliano Ramos and set the standards for the Cinema Novo movement of the late 1950s-early 1960s. In Cinema Novo, Brazilian filmmakers relentlessly critiqued their society with the aim of transforming it into something better. Actively political, they turned their cameras on poverty and social struggle in an understated, matter-of-fact way that belies the essential propaganda at the heart of these films. The results were, by turns, breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreaking, intellectually provocative, and, yes, about as far removed from commercial Hollywood product as any film in Portuguese would necessarily be.

Like director John Ford’s filmed version of John Steinbeck’s most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, every frame of Vidas Secas burns with socialist politics and a simmering anger. But there is an important difference between a classic American film designed as dramatic entertainment, and a message movie made on a different continent. Steinbeck’s (and Ford’s) Tom Joad learns to fight back and vows to do just that at the conclusion of Ford’s film. Henry Fonda, as Joad, declares his allegiance to the working man in that famous climactic speech: “Wherever you can look — wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there…”

No such optimism exists in Vidas Secas. While the audience may yearn for Fabiano to rebel, to fight back like Tom Joad, he comprehends only the most basic needs: providing for family, survival, living through another day. Political consciousness still hibernates. And so, in Vidas Secas the call to action is directed at the audience — and that is the essence of propaganda. The call is subtle, but far more effective than the bludgeoning tactics of crusading directors like Oliver Stone (Salvador, JFK). When delivering a message, often less is more, even though it may not deliver satisfying drama — such as Henry Fonda’s stirring speech.

What's on the Disc, Steve?
I'll tell ya. Extras include a brief analysis of the film by New York University Professor Robert Stam, an expert on Brazilian cinema, who discusses the “Aesthetics of Hunger.” The disc also contains a short film, Baleia the Dog, which is a retrospective on Vidas Secas, featuring recent interviews with the director and Maria Ribeiro. This is a bizarre short with wildly incongruous comedy, featuring a talking parrot that reminisces about his days working on Vidas Secas before he flew off when the crew attempted to roast him for a key scene. The short includes some interesting documentary footage at Cannes, where the film screened in competition, but as a supplement to Vidas Secas the tone is all wrong. Such a strained effort at humor is jarring after screening the main feature. A tri-fold inside the DVD keepcase includes an interview with the director.

The Contrarian View
Some chroma-crawl is evident in the digital transfer, which struggles to keep up with the harsh lighting in this deliberately overexposed film. The mono audio is clean, but be forewarned: the incessant sound effect of squealing wagon wheels may set your teeth on edge. It is infinitely more jangling than the industrial tone compositions that Stanley Kubrick used at the climax of Full Metal Jacket, which is the closest aural comparison I can offer.

This is a hard-core arthouse film, as arid and bleak as Bergman, so know what you're in for before parting with a suggested retail price of $30. Vidas Secas delivers a draining, depressing, and yet visually stunning cinematic experience.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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