It begins with an intimate scene of childbirth. A fair-skinned woman wails and cries, while a darker-skinned woman kneads her belly, assisting with labor. The scene does not have the typical angles of a childbirth scene, and the bond between these two women seems deep, even primal. The fair-skinned woman does not survive the ordeal, and the Brazilian film Vazante is about the fallout of her death. Directed by Daniela Thomas, this black-and-white drama is more immersive than it is involving. Many scene are deliberate, with minimal dialogue, to the point that the story develops an allegorical quality. And if Vazante is elliptical for most of its running time, its climax unfolds with stark, genuine power.
Adriano Carvalho plays Antonio, a wealthy cattle herder who is on a difficult journey home when his wife dies along with his child. It is 1821, and his family lives in the mountains, far away from civilization. Antonio returns with valuable lace clothes, and when he learns about the tragedy, he tears them without much visible emotion. There is talk that Antonio’s land is cursed, and indeed none of the slaves are able to grow any crops there. His brother-in-law Bartholomeu (Roberto Audio) arrives at the estate with his wife and daughters; Bartholomeu is there to grieve and show support, but Antonio has other plans. He marries his niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), even though she is still a girl, and their union creates pervasive unease.
The faces and landscapes are where Thomas and her cinematographer Inti Briones find the deepest thematic material in Vazante. Briones also shot the art house hit The Loneliest Planet, and here he recreates his ability to find the oppressive, austere beauty of nature. The black-and-white photography serves the material well: Every image is crisp, and the absence of color gives us ample opportunity to study each composition. Carvalho has sunken features, as if he is halfway toward starvation, and the close-ups of him show a man who is on the verge of madness. The exterior shots, especially those in the jungle, are haunting in a way that recalls Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo: The jungle is so rich with flora and fauna that it is indifferent to humanity.
Slavery was not outlawed in Brazil until 1888, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, and this film suggests slavery’s moral stain still hangs over the country. Vazante may be set in 1821, but its attitude toward race relations is distinctly modern: The system of oppression is something taught more than it is internalized. Both Beatriz and her new slave friend have features and mannerisms suggesting they are more modern, more forward thinking. So when Antonio steps between them, wordlessly asserting his ownership over his slaves and young bride, his utter disregard for their feelings is all the more inhumane. Thomas deepens this tension with many secondary characters who offer a running commentary on this drama. They are helpless against Antonio—Carvalho’s performance is both remote and pitiless—so Vazante’s grim irony is how the estate’s curse is of Antonio’s own making.
Formal beauty and thematic depth notwithstanding, Vazante is a challenging film. Thomas offers no background music or dialogue, leaving the audience to decide the emotional cues for themselves. When there is dialogue, it rarely advances the plot. These demands are common in art films, particularly in what you might find in the Criterion Collection, but Thomas has effectively made a film where not a lot happens. Some scenes are languid, while others are seemingly pointless, yet they culminate toward a final shot as striking and powerful as anything in the usual crop of Oscar bait.
Vazante is hardly entertaining in a traditional sense, so it is better to think of it as a horror film without any gore or supernatural terror. In fact, if this film has any parallel to a recent release, it is the 2016 horror film The Witch. They share similar impasses between desperate patriarchs, curious children, and a barren landscapes. The Witch ends with a young woman bargaining with the devil, and while Vazante eschews such obvious metaphors, it nonetheless carries the weight and horror of pervasive evil.
Vazante opens Friday at Landmark West End Cinema.