Daniela Thomas initially centers Vazante on a man who fails: Antonio (Adriano Carvhalho), a white farmer who can’t make his land grow a thing, support a homestead, or ensure the survival of his wife and child. It’s 1821 in Brazil. Slavery hasn’t been abolished. The world is a gloomy place.
If the world is dour, Thomas’ presentation of the drama is not. The film is shot in black and white, which is not to say that the cinematography functions as support for the bleakness of the world of Vazante. Rather, Thomas imbues the black-and-white palette with a subtle expressionism that enhances the natural beauty of the world in which these dark existences take place.
Vazante is a beautiful, atmospheric film, even as the story it tells is not. Slaves, children, and women suffer in this film, either because of Antonio’s ineptitude and negligence, or because this is a time and a world in which suffering is baked into society.
The film turns when Antonio’s brother-in-law arrives, a poor man with a wife and two daughters, one of whom, Beatriz (Luna Nastas), Antonio takes as his new wife. Antonio soon leaves on business, leaving a restless house behind.
Speaking to the title of the film, a word which translates into English as “surge” but which communicates something more like, “ebb,” the film rushes then recedes from its themes: racism, sexism, poverty, slavery, bondage––and the impotence of language to transcend these.
Although Thomas’ treatment of these themes is more indirect than other titles in Brazilian cinema, their presence helps locate Vazante in a lineage of national filmmaking which has constantly focused on social and political issues.
Consider, for example, the recent slate of Brazilian films which have been nominated for an Oscar: City of God (2002), directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund; Waste Land (2010), directed by Lucy Walker and João Jardim; The Salt of the Earth (2014), directed by Wim Wemders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; Boy and the World (2014) directed by Alê Abreu.
City of God deals with two young men experiencing the drug trade in 1970s Rio de Janeiro: one documents it while the other participates in it. Waste Land tells the stories of catadores, artists who make art and replicas of famous art, using refuse from world’s largest landfill. The Salt of the Earth featured the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiãl Salgado, whose photography sought to expose the exploitation of the environment and people for global economic gain. The Boy and the World deals with the impacts of deforestation, warfare and rebellion.
Brazilian film can hardly be accused of being escapist. In this way, it stands almost as a rejection of US cinema, and world cinema which has been influenced by US aesthetics. While exceptions exist, most Brazilian cinema serves as a reminder that beauty and ugliness coexist in the human condition.
As Glauber Rocha wrote in his 1964 essay, “The Aesthetics of Hunger,” what Brazilian filmmakers have given the world is “an evolving complex of films that will ultimately make the public aware of its own misery.”
Vazante arrives as a new installment in this legacy of filmmaking. It shows an ugly world made though humans relations but existing within abundant natural beauty. Rare is the filmmaker who can put both into meaningful conversation. Thomas gets close here.