by Allan Fish
(Brazil 1963 103m) DVD1
Aka. Barren Lives
p Luiz Carlos Barreto, Danilo Trelles, Herbert Riches d/w Nelson Pereira dos Santos novel Graciliano Ramos ph Luiz Carlos Barreto, José Rosa ed Rafael Justo Valverde, Nello Melli m Leonardo Alencar art Raimundo Higino
Atila Iório (Fabiano), Maria Ribeiro (Sinhá Vitória), Orlando Macedo (Soldado Amorelo), Jofre Soares (Fazendeiro), Gilvan Lima, Genivaldo Lima,
Ask your average film buff about Brazilian cinema and most discussions begin with Pixote and end with City of God, as if the whole nation’s culture and screen prestige is inseparable from the infamous ‘Ciudad de Dios’. But then discuss the national cinema with a Brazilian film writer and you would find that the modern classics of Babenco and Mereilles are regarded as merely an epilogue. Their real national cinema, the real culture of Brazil was demonstrated in the sixties and early seventies in the movement regarded as Cinema Novo. Like other movements of the era, from France’s nouvelle vague to the British kitchen sink dramas, it wanted to deglamorise cinema, make it more truthful; in the case of Cinema Novo in a devotion to ethnic culture and the honest depiction of the poverty of the rural poor. Never was this more amply demonstrated than in Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ harrowing tale of poverty in the Brazilian sertao of the North-East.
The film comes across as a sort of Latin American The Grapes of Wrath, detailing the lives of a small family of wandering peasants in the harsh, desolate plains of their country in the early 1940s, looking not so much for work as to survive from day to day. The father gets money, then loses it gambling, their pet dog searches for vermin for them to eat, while the two children only have their dog to lighten their gloom.
At times it seems like the sort of film that piles so much woe on top of misfortune on top of disaster that it would be very easy for it to become almost a parody of despair. But it has such truth coursing through each shot as to render it truly demoralising, the camera simply recording like an unbiased spectator and, thus, with an indisputable honesty. Feelings of respect for the human spirit it depicts tempered with a righteous anger felt by the viewer at the truly barren bleakness of it. Death is not to be feared, but to be welcomed like a reprieve. When one of the children is told about hell and told it is a horrible place with hot pokers, he needn’t worry. After what he’s been through, Beelzebub and his fires would be like a vacation. It has one major difference to The Grapes of Wrath; Steinbeck’s novel (and Ford’s film) had some optimism, some hope. Not much, but it was there. Dos Santos’ film has no hope whatsoever, the landscape in which it unfolds is so unforgiving that the cows look like they escaped from a bovine concentration camp and even the vultures have vacated residence.
It has been said that the film borrows from neo-realism, and indeed that is true, as essences of de Sica in particular are often in evidence, though in truth this isn’t so much neo-realism as neo-depression. Others might compare it to kindred spirit films Los Olvidados and Pather Panchali, and it certainly doesn’t suffer in comparison. Never have the consistent recitation and repetition in parrot fashion of Hail Marys fallen on such deaf ears. Never has such a quote within a film, such as the mother’s final cries of “we cannot go on living like animals” been more apt. But the scene everyone will remember above all is the truly heart-breaking finale where the father, Fabiano, is forced to kill their faithful dog Baleia when she falls ill and cruelly, and ineptly, fails to make it a quick death. It’s savage, and the sequence is shot so realistically that animal cruelty organisations were sure the dog had really been killed (in fact it appeared at Cannes and was treated as a celebrity). I do not exaggerate when I say that no animal has ever given such a performance as the canine here. The image of her dying, saddened face is enough to nearly bring tears to the eyes as I type. It’s a movie that is as much fun as non-anaesthetised root canal surgery, but just you dare ignore it.