Barren Lives (Vidas secas)

Barren Lives

It’s crazy to go on.

Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement is reportedly heavily influenced by Italian neorealism, which immediately gets it points off with me. So for me to go on and say that this film, Vidas Secas, one of the films that helped shape the Cinema Novo movement, was not only impressive with its technicals, but with its story as well, is really saying something. I did my usual bit of research into the film before I started, and came up with very little, so I went an extra step and looked into the Cinema Novo movement itself, as a refresher of the other such films on the list I’ve seen and as an intro to this one. Boy, am I glad I did; it put this film into such perspective that there seemed to be no other outcome for me other than complete understanding, and thus empathy with what the film wants to do.

I will say though, in what may seem to be the opposite of what I said in the opener, that the plot of this one is very bare, and isn’t very driven along a narrative line as much as it sets up the environment for the characters and then merely lets things happen to them. We start with the central family (a man, a woman, and their two sons, along with their dog) trudging around the desert landscape, with practically nothing to their name and even less fortune of finding anything in their future. Even still, they come upon a house and take shelter there in a rainstorm, after which the owner of the house arrives and the father is able to talk the man into giving him a job. Thus, the situation is set up, and various things happen to our family that all seem to emphasize the unforgiving nature of this part of the country, which is the whole point of the film and the Cinema Novo movement as a whole. The first thing I noticed, after the searing cinematography, was the editing, which was quite good, and diverse enough to hold interest even when there’s nothing happening plot-wise. But, what one can’t help but notice right off the bat is the way the film looks and feels. Holy crap, was this film whitewashed. Right from the opening shot, the film itself appears bleached with sunlight, making the entire image burn right off the screen with intensity. It reminded me instantly of Black God, White Devil, a film from the same cinematic movement as this one, so that film’s look became more understandable. The film completely embodies its subject and location in a way few films are brave enough to attempt. The plot is slow to develop, just like anything in that wasteland the characters call home is slow to happen, if it happens at all. Dialogue is sparse, as sparse as food and water in the barren landscape. And whenever something does appear to happen, it’s almost always bad in some way to our family, which can get a little sickening as more and more of it occurs as the film goes on, but having looked into Cinema Novo and getting a clearer understanding of the political and social context and metaphor the film uses, it ended up becoming quite potent, as it should have been.

I should be clear about what I got from this one, and the rating I’m giving it; most of this was not based on entertainment, but on appreciation, either for what the film accomplishes, or for the technicals. I do realize that stands in almost complete opposition to nearly all of my ratings on this site thus far, but this is that rare film that gets one to make an exception. I appreciated the hell out of this film, and that the film itself was also pretty watchable, technically and narratively, earned it extra points in my book. I’m fully aware that my opinion may not be shared by many, or even a few, but for me, this was one where everything, from what the film did to my mindset going into it, just clicked perfectly, and I was incredibly thankful for it, given this film’s influences. If I were rating this based on what I thought the average viewer would get out of it, it would probably be a 7, but I got a lot more from it than I was expecting, so I decided to be a little rewarding. Your experience may vary.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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