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Review: The eyes see everything in Brazilian historical drama ‘Vazante’

Adriano Carvalho and Luana Nastas in the movie "Vazante."
( Music Box Films)

The first thing you notice in Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas’ historical drama “Vazante” — set at an isolated mountain farm in 19th century slave-trading Brazil — is, well, all the noticing. In the opening scenes, a black slave named Feliciana (Jai Baptista), worry coursing through her features, realizes her mistress, wife to slave-owning Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), isn’t going to survive a grueling childbirth. At the same time, during a rain-soaked caravan home after a long journey, another slave, responding to a futile task, sees how fragile his master Antonio has become anticipating fatherhood. Antonio, meanwhile, looks as if he’s gazing past anything in front of him.

Elsewhere, a young girl of 12 named Beatriz (Luana Nastas) — Antonio’s niece — twirls in a downpour, her twinkling eyes signaling that she relishes the beauty of her environment. And when Beatriz’s life is upended by the marriage needs of her widowed uncle, that innocent sense of revelry will morph into a very different visage, of something confused, if no less wanting.

Grimly powerful and intersectionally acute, Thomas’ serious, haunted period saga is a portrait of colonial rot and patriarchal cruelty as experienced by characters inextricably linked — male and female, free and chained, native and not, even sane and otherwise — in one remote outpost. And in elegantly framed close-up after close-up, the eyes of Thomas’ actors do a fair amount of the heavy lifting in communicating an aura of poisoned dread. Whether it’s the coldly glum, partly glazed orbs of Antonio, the observant stares of Feliciana’s teenage son Virgílio (Vinicius dos Anjos), or the increasingly lost gaze of Beatriz, the attention paid to the movie’s constellation of troubled faces helps keep “Vazante” — a spiritual sister to the similarly race-vectored “Mudbound” — squarely in the realm of judiciously intimate epic.

Reeling from the death of his wife and newborn, Antonio grieves by taking off and neglecting his struggling estate. Adding to the tension is the defiant restlessness of Antonio’s most recently acquired West African slaves — led by a ready-to-revolt Líder (Toumani Kouyaté) — whose language and customs are mysteries even to those on the farm who share the new arrivals’ skin color and situation, but not their tongue. There’s an unmistakable scent of uncertainty mingling with the air of oppression, seclusion and misery.

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Antonio returns, though, and a new cycle of subjugation starts up again in two significant ways. He assigns a native black Brazilian freedman named Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira) to turn his gem-depleted land into a crop-turning plantation, which results in a greater intolerance toward the less submissive slaves. Antonio also selects as his new bride Beatriz, the youngest daughter of his deferential, cash-poor brother-in-law (Roberto Audio).

Beatriz is almost ethereally waif-like — wide-eyed, long-haired and prone to wandering the grounds in her nightgown, lying in the grass, and touching everything. Antonio’s business absences give her lots of idle time, and before long her growing need for belonging and companionship finds an outlet in tender-hearted Virgílio. The boy’s feelings for Beatriz feel genuine, but they’re invariably shaded by having to routinely witness his mother summoned to the main house in the middle of the night to satisfy Antonio as he waits for Beatriz to reach childbearing age.

Thomas, who has co-directed a couple of features with countryman Walter Salles, and who co-wrote “Vazante” with Beto Amaral, shows remarkable flair for the way each character’s capacity for suffering breathe inside a system of oppression that amounts to a vise-like grip. Shots of human beings shivering in shackles carry exactly the furious weight they should, as do the tears of a girl awaiting god-knows-what in her marital bed. There’s even something insightfully pitiable and feckless about Carvalho’s Antonio too — he practically sleepwalks through the vicissitudes of his sinful privilege, as if he can’t wait to be a ghost for a changing world. Thomas and cinematographer Inti Briones know when to push that air of torpid beauty too — the black-and-white imagery is simultaneously past-evocative and languidly atmospheric.

It’s easy to see where the story is headed as its characters’ desires and needs play out, but “Vazante” isn’t designed to floor you with narrative. Thomas’ petri dish of Brazilian history before independence and the end of slavery is ultimately a microcosm for the country’s fraught race/class/gender dynamics. At its center is a dramatist’s purest of wishes: to capture the interiority of people in dire circumstances, to make us see what they see and feel what they feel.

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‘Vazante’

In Portuguese with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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