In this current sociopolitical landscape, where discussions of women in film are finally happening in earnest, here is a female-directed film that could escape notice — but shouldn’t.
Opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, Daniela Thomas’ “Vazante” is preoccupied with textures and touch, with fabric, food and foliage.
Yet it’s a sensuous telling of a rather pessimistic story.
Set in Brazil in the early part of the 19th century, a cattle man, Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) heads home through the jungles, eager to meet his newborn son.
Unfortunately, both the son and the wife have died during the difficult childbirth. So he decides to marry his wife’s niece, the beautiful, very young Beatriz (Luana Nastas).
Beatriz is too young to conceive yet, so Antonio goes back to work, leaving her alone to wander about their remote farm. She takes the opportunity to befriend a young slave, Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos).
Plotwise, it isn’t very hard to guess where “Vazante” is going, but it’s fascinating watching it get there.
Thomas makes her solo feature directing debut with this film, following a longtime partnership with Walter Salles.
Their first movie together, the very good “Foreign Land” (1996), combined message and mood, and it’s not hard to guess that Salles was more interested in the former while Thomas is captivated by the latter.
Salles went on to make several safe, soft, Oscar-friendly movies (“Central Station,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” etc.), while this movie by Thomas is virtually the opposite.
She shoots “Vazante” in vivid, shimmering black-and-white with a wide frame, taking color out of the equation and leaving everything up to shapes and surfaces.
Thomas introduces many captivating themes; a farming expert is hired to help revive Antonio’s dying land, and to do so he sets fire to a huge section. It takes death to bring life.
Pointedly, Antonio almost never wears shoes. This is his one direct connection with the earth, even if he seems disconnected in other ways.
Milk also provides a useful theme (Virgilio delivers fresh milk to the kitchen, where he sees the pregnant Beatriz), as is water (the title has to do with ebbing tide, or emptying water), sunlight and other primal elements.
Spoken in Portuguese with English subtitles, dialogue is spare in “Vazante.” Thomas spends long moments simply observing, showing glances, giving clues. It’s a very skilled piece of nearly silent storytelling.
Thomas doesn’t underline the issue of slavery, but also doesn’t shy away from inhuman horrors. (She shows, but doesn’t tell.)
The film also extends seamlessly into women’s issues; in this world, women are nearly every bit as subservient and controlled, and with as little choice, as the slaves.
That leaves Antonio, who commits many despicable acts over the course of the movie, but is also a product of his time and seems human. He has a kind of haunted look and he’s sometimes sad and desperate, full of longing or exasperation.
As the final blow comes down on his life, he lets out a howl of rage and pain, a howl that Thomas snaps off midway for the quiet credits to roll. He’s human, but he is not forgiven.
Three and a half stars
Starring Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Jai Baptista, Vinicius Dos Anjos
Written by Daniela Thomas, Beto Amaral
Directed by Daniela Thomas
Running time 1 hour, 57 minutes