‘Vazante’ Is Dark, Depressing, and Decent

by Warren Cantrell on February 2, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Up]

A quiet, stoic slog through the untamed Brazilian jungle set almost two hundred years ago, Vazante isn’t what you’d call a chipper affair. It’s a tale rooted in prejudice, unchecked patriarchy, white privilege, and cruelty that hovers around the basest level of human existence.

All of this is accentuated by deliberate choices by director Daniela Thomas, whose decision to accentuate the naked silence of this world gives the whole effort a distinct flavor that smacks the audience in the face. It doesn’t leave a particularly pleasant aftertaste, however, so while the intended result might be what Thomas was going for, it doesn’t make the viewing experience especially enjoyable.

Vazante opens in the rugged jungles of southeastern Brazil in 1821, cross-cutting between a woman dying in childbirth with a man riding with a pack-train of mules and chained slaves towards her. The man, Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), is exhausted, yet finds the energy to insist on washing the new baby clothes he’s procured once again to make sure they are as clean as possible. This giddy excitement is shattered when he reaches his villa, and learns of the death of his wife and baby: news that sends him into something of a fugue state.

While Antonio is off on a long ride to gather himself, his brother-in-law, Bartholomeau (Roberto Audio), steps in to try and run the family slaving business, which meets with disastrous results. It is for this reason that Bartholomeau seems willing to give up one of his daughters to Antonio, who is looking to replace the wife and child he lost. This young girl, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), is just a teenager, yet must emerge from her childhood in the blink of an eye to assume the mantle of house mistress for a baby-hungry slave driver.

When Antonio leaves his new child bride so he can go do some human trafficking, Beatriz must look after his villa, planting operation, and the slaves maintaining it, compelling her to grow up faster still. The slaves she is responsible for in her new husband’s absence see an opportunity with the young girl in charge, which Beatriz nervously and instinctively observes. There’s a connection between them as well, however, for the slaves and Beatriz are all prisoners in their own way. How all of this resolves itself makes up the stunning last act of Vazante, and it is as intense as it is visceral.

There are long stretches of Vazante that proceed without any dialogue, which, paired with a lack of a score, makes for a cerebral viewing experience that relies on atmosphere more than a narrative. Nuzzled in the heart of the Brazilian jungle, with only Antonio’s villa breaking the uninterrupted expanse of canopied wilderness, the black and white color scheme further reinforces the stark, almost exposed atmosphere of Vazante. This absence of color robs the film of its beauty, just as the paucity of dialogue and lack of score imbue it with a sort of emptiness.

On the one hand, this seems appropriate considering the cruel foundation this film rests upon. Vazante keeps chattel slavery and arranged child marriage in the foreground, so any attempts to spruce things up with lush vista shots, snappy dialogue, or a moving score might have muddied the tonal waters, here. The protagonists, sympathetic as they may be at times, still own human beings, and Thomas’ film doesn’t want the audience to forget that. This is a cruel world populated with morally bankrupt people who, despite their existence as “people of that era,” should still know better.

And maybe that’s the point. Inhumanity and cruelty should always be known and obvious to intelligent, reasoning creatures like human beings, regardless of the epoch in which they find themselves. Vazante hits this point hard, and does so in a manner that is neither obvious nor familiar. While decent enough people to have a cup of coffee with, folks like Antonio or Bartholomeau are not good men, and the world they inhabit is an ugly one. Daniela Thomas should be commended for making a film that draws this uncomfortable truth out by showing instead of telling via the decisions she makes with her color palate, dialogue, and score (or lack thereof).

Yet again, that doesn’t make any of this easy or enjoyable to watch. This is the unfortunate paradox that many filmmakers find themselves in; making movies true to the spirit of the subject matter can sometimes alienate the viewer. Spielberg successfully navigated this tightrope with Schindler’s List (also in black and white), as did Steve McQueen with 12 Years a Slave, yet it is saying something when the pinnacle of what a person can hope for in this regard results in an Academy Award for Best Picture.

This is the cinematic equivalent of playing roulette, or betting on a home run. Indeed, it takes one hell of a big swing to connect with audiences when operating on this thematic level. Baseball fans will tell you that the bigger the cut, the higher the probability for a strike, and while a grand slam homerun is indeed possible, it shouldn’t be relied upon. Still, Vazante is no strikeout, yet to be fair: it isn’t going to clear the bases, either.

Opening today at the Screenland Crossroads at Tapcade, Vazante is an interesting movie directed by a deliberate, thoughtful filmmaker with something to say. Strong performances by Carvalho and Nastas carry the effort, and compliment the stripped-down atmosphere pervading the whole affair. A tough watch, to be sure, and not a particularly enjoyable one, Vazante is nonetheless a good movie, and worth seeing.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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