BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Brazilian rage, Part III.

Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), right from the start, doesn’t pull any punches. Through subtitles, Dos Santos exhorts his audience to feel pity for the millions of people suffering in Brazil’s north-east, where arid lands and the cruel elite conspire to tread all over the poor workers. He then proceeds to use very uncomfortable distorted sound on the soundtrack in the opening image, the likes which would have made Michael Snow proud. From that opening, you can tell that this isn’t going to be particularly pleasant viewing.

Based on an important Brazilian novel by Graciliano Ramos, the film bears a strong resemblance to the righteous anger and frustration of the Italian neo-realist film movement. The novel is reputed to be part Faulkner and part Steinbeck, and the story follows a homeless family’s quest for a home and work. Their struggle is brutal – menial work, failed dreams, and family tragedy all serve to indeed make their lives barren.

The film aims to be entirely subjective. The source novel is Faulknerian in its construction, with different subjectivities telling the story. Dos Santos attempts this with point of view shots and shot-reverse-shots. For the most part this is quite successful, but I’m not sure if dos Santos had the rigour to completely carry this style through. Furthermore, certain moments, such as having two characters speak at once directly to the camera, didn’t work particularly well. But then again, dos Santos, wasn’t addressing a comfortable Western viewer. But the subjective viewpoint did work beautifully in particular moments – particularly in the heartbreaking prison scene.

This is a brutal film. While quieter than Rocha’s films, the anger is slow-burning but intense. The film manages to portray the events with little sentimentality or forced emotion – that’s where the Italian neo-realist influence came in (in fact, the early Cinema Novo films were heavily indebted to the Neorealist movement, it took the likes of Rocha to skew it in different directions). Little character moments built up to break the characters down – the payment of interest, a single bet too many, a misdirected bullet (at the end). And the film ends viciously like it started – distortion on the soundtrack, an empty road, few possessions and a cruel, unforgiving sky.