Berlin 2017: Vazante review


Daniela Thomas’ Vazante is a minor Greek tragedy transposed to colonial Brazil. A slow-burning drama about slavery in all its forms, this austere, visually striking film combines a harrowing period of Brazilian history with devastating accuracy of emotion. Vazante lacks much in the way of exposition, choosing to eschew the comforts of historical context and submerges the viewer into the harsh rhythms of an epoch built on racial cruelty.

Unhurried and somewhat lacking in focus, the film’s spellbinding visuals are matched by an intelligent sound design that uses the jangling of chains and the heavy thump of soil being prepared to create a discomforting rhythm that increases gradually as the film trudges towards its shocking finale. Although the film opens and closes with a birth, neither events are cause for celebration, with both labours resulting in a death. The first is the wife of Antonio (Adriano Carvalho). Finding himself widowed and the sole proprietor of the their failing diamond mine, Antonio spends much of his time grieving for his dead wife.

Meanwhile the community of slaves working for him become agitated by the arrival of a new group of men who speak a different language. The decision to not subtitle these new arrivals is a contentious one; on the one hand it builds tension during the heated exchanges of these two groups of slaves, but on the other it dehumanises the very men the film should be giving a voice to. The arrival of a local agriculture specialist sees an upturn in the fortunes of the estate and Antonio decides to marry again, choosing Beatriz, his late wife’s twelve-year-old niece as his new bride. At first she’s too young to satisfy all his need, then one day he returns home from a trip with a gift for her; a toy doll. He takes her disinterest in the childish gift as a sign she’s readily to perform her wifely duties.

Although Beatriz is keen to explore her sexuality, she’d rather do so with one of Antonio’s slaves who she became quite smitten with whilst her husband was away. Shortly after they consecrate their wedding vows, Beatriz fall pregnant, but is Antonio’s excitement premature, or could the child rip apart the fabric of this cruel system of violence and subjugation? Thomas was an artistic director of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and any concerns that Vazante might pander to political interference and downplay the nation’s cruel history can be discounted straight away as this is a gruelling and bleak depiction of oppression in all its various guises.

As well as concerning itself with the African slaves who were chained and rendered little more than empty bodies, Thomas also finds time to touch on the experiences of the indigenous population who were often forced to play the role of supervisor and the societal entrapment of women in a staunchly patriarchal society. Piling one tragedy upon another, as if to quarantine the evil at the heart of her story, Thomas’ bold and upsetting Vazante castigates not only the institution of slavery but also Brazilian whites and their complicity.

The Berlin Film Festival takes place between 9-19 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble