Saturday, October 8, 2011

Southwest (Sudoeste)

SOUTHWEST (Sudoeste)                   B-                     
Brazil  (128 mi)  2011  Super ‘Scope (3.66 Aspect Ratio)  d:  Eduardo Nunes

What starts out as a film with tremendous promise eventually dies a slow death of dullness and utter predictability by the end of the picture, as this is largely an exercise in visual stylization, shot by Mauro Pinheiro using Black and White film with a super Widescreen aspect ratio of 3.66, while ‘Scope is 2:35, but unfortunately a choice was made to shoot the movie on HD Video, so only the middle sliver of the screen is used, none of it in the sharp focus of 35 mm, while 30 to 40 % of the movie screen both on top and below are unused, which gives the feel of a movie that was simply projected wrong, and would be even less visible on a TV screen, probably unwatchable.  The director was present and he also reported the sound design was incorrect, as the stereo sound should move throughout the various sections of the theater and from front to back.  Granted, if the movie made use of an entire ‘Scope-sized movie screen, this might possess a more powerful effect, as the film is gorgeous to look at, but the real problem lies with the detached and uninvolving nature of the story itself, a combined effort written by the director and William Sarmiento, which near wordlessly follows one day in the life of a young girl Clarice who ages throughout the day, ending up near death from old age by evening.  Once the audience figures out what’s happening, as her character continually evolves to new actresses playing her part, which initially is so beautifully confusing, nothing that follows appears strange or unique, but just seems to predictably follow the storyline.  While there is a moody opening sequence, the cinematographer is obviously under the influence of Béla Tarr, who uses real film, by the way, but also uses extremely slow pans where the camera acts as an all observing eye, where nothing is ever explained, but sequences gather momentum as information is accumulated over time.  Not so in this film, where information detracts from the overall impact which is strongest in the beginning when the audience hasn’t a clue what’s going on. 

Supposedly ten years in the making due to lack of funding, as the film is too slow for commercial possibilities, the film is largely a fantasy realization but shown using a grim, ultra realistic look, shot in Brazil on actual isolated coastal locations, where ironically Brazil has no Southwest coast, all of which lends itself to magical realism.  But initially the dour mood that pervades the opening scenes is broken by the unexpected presence of a young girl, Clarice (Rachel Bonfante), who appears out of nowhere, but bears the same name as a previous character that is already dead and buried, where she could be a ghost or the secret appearance of her unborn child, also presumed dead, or simply a metaphor for life, which begins and ends all too quickly.  Bonfante is the best thing in the film, shot in the bright light of morning, as she barely utters a word but captures volumes of emotion on her face, where she always appears a bit puzzled, like a wandering spirit that is simply lost, but she innocently latches onto whoever feels like taking care of her and especially enjoys playing with another child, João (Victor Navega Motta), often sharing special secrets with him.  It was João’s curiosity that found Clarice in the first place, so she seems to have a special bond with him, which gets a bit peculiar when she ages, not realizing it herself, apparently, still acting childlike and playful.  But it turns out they share a special history that accounts for the peculiar opening sequence, but the only ones truly haunted by her presence appear to be the adults, who tend to avoid her, suggesting they are uncomfortable and in denial by what she represents.

As Clarice ages, the other young actresses never make that initial connection to match Bonfante, who truly dazzles onscreen, which creates a kind of disconnect with her character.  The film couldn’t be more detached and disorienting as it is, but when the characters become more ordinary, her storyline loses interest.  The youngest character delighted us with utter amazement, while the older characters simply lack her personality, where they appear less like an apparition or an unexplained oddity and more like a typical young girl.  Certainly what she undergoes is a bewildering transformation, but there’s little complexity about the experience that is shared with the audience, where instead she ages as is appropriate for the storyline rather than unexpectedly and with great surprise.  There’s an interesting festival pageant on a tiny scale in this poverty stricken village that produces a costumed character that can only be compared to a similar haunting presence of death in BLACK ORPHEUS (1959), where this outcome is equally appalling, leaving Clarice alone to fend for herself, where what’s particularly striking is just how isolated and alone she has become, where the pervasive mood swings to near horror.  There are subliminal images matching a haunting sound design that clearly indicate something is amiss, terrifying as in otherworldly, but the director neglects to follow up on this bit of unpleasantness and instead trudges forward with the inevitable that we knew was coming for the final two-thirds of the film.   Long, slow, and uninvolving, this will be infuriorating to some, very much in the feel of copycat Béla Tarr, but without the depth, stark imagery, acid humor, and modernist humanism on display. 

Note:  Kudos to Marilyn Ferdinand who has apparently written the first and only English language review found of this film at Ferdy on Films seen here:  CIFF 2011: Southwest (Sudoeste, 2011) - Ferdy on Films

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