CIFF 2011: Southwest (Sudoeste, 2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Eduardo Nunes

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Brazil, as a country, is generally divided into five regions: the North, the Northeast, the Central-West, the Southeast, and the South. So when director Eduardo Nunes names his first feature Southwest, it must be assumed that we are entering a place more of the imagination than of representation. We will see many things that behave as they do in the real world, but we must also be prepared to open ourselves up to illogic, magic, the impossible, to experience what Nunes has in store for us—a fairy tale with as much grace and ghastliness as anything offered by the Grimm brothers.

Right from the opening shot, the opposing forces of water and earth—the unconscious and the conscious—that will work on our heroine throughout the film are mixed. It is night, and a horsedrawn cart is seen moving along a dirt road through a veil of reeds in the foreground, bringing a old woman (Léa Garcia) who could be mistaken for nothing but a shaman to an inn. She is greeted at the door by a nervous younger woman, Concepção ((Dira Paes). They enter the inn and watch as the innkeeper empties a coffeepot and starts filling it with water. She and the old woman climb some crooked steps to the second floor. The old woman, Iraci, disappears behind a door as Concepção stands outside in the hall fretting and then runs downstairs to fetch the pan of hot water the innkeeper has prepared. Ah yes, a birth is about to take place.

Unfortunately, when Concepção enters the room, we see with her the wide, dead eyes of the mother-to-be. Iraci is chanting and brushing evil spirits away from the baby still trapped in the mother’s womb. She asks Concepção what the girl’s name was. “Clarice” is the answer. Soon, the cart is taking the women and, miraculously, the baby away from the inn. Iraci places the baby in the bow of a rowboat, climbs in, and rows to her house on stilts in the middle of a lake.

The villagers have fallen on hard times, as the fish and salt they harvest from the lake—formerly part of the Atlantic Ocean—are both diminishing. They blame Iraci, generally acknowledged to be a witch, for these misfortunes. Some curious children row out to her house, and 9-year-old João (Victor Navega Motta) climbs onto the wooden stilts to have a look inside. He sees a girl about his age between the slats; he forces a wooden shutter open, and a quick cut finds him sailing humorously into the water, presumably from a forceful shove. Soon thereafter, the girl emerges and rows her boat to shore.

The rest of the film follows this girl who says her name is Clarice as she goes from a child who has not yet learned a language to an old woman, apparently in the span of a single day. As she progresses through childhood (Rachel Bonfante), young womanhood and middle age (Simone Spoladore), and finally, old age (Regina Bastos), we learn the story of the dead woman in the inn whose spirit and memories the miracle Clarice seems to embody.

While Iraci does indeed seem to possess the powers of magic, the film casts her more as a fairy godmother as it mixes pre-Christian and Christian symbology. Iraci ties a seashell on a string around the baby’s neck, a symbol of the feminine unconscious that moves through her and protects her even as she emerges to her own conscious history by coming into contact with her family and the village. The part of the film during which Clarice as a young woman appears to be raped by her costumed and disguised father (Julio Adrian) occurs during Folia de Reis (Three Kings’ Day), a celebration of the birth of Christ; the miracle Clarice is born in an ancient inn with Concepção (Conception) as witness.

The script, written by Nunes and Guillermo Sarmiento, is exceptionally smart in slowly revealing Clarice’s story and requiring her to fulfill her destiny. Clarice ends up in her own room with her family. She sits on the floor looking into a box of ribbons when she sees her father peering in through the partially open door. She runs to the door, slams it, and locks it. Later, her mother (Marina Lima), grieving over the death of her daughter (“She was also named Clarice,” she says when the young visitor reveals her name), tells the young woman Clarice that her daughter started talking nonsense one day, a clue that she revealed who the father of her child was. Her tormented mother says only that she fears being alone to suggest why she and her rapist husband are still together.

Later, Clarice sees that the villagers have finally acted on their fear of the witch by burning her house. Clarice rows out to the house but reaches it just as it collapses in flames; she cannot return to her fairy godmother and must die as she was meant to, finding peace that she has been able to see her loved ones, experience the joys and sorrows of life one more time, understanding some of what happened to her. It is implied by Clarice dying as an old woman that a truly full life is one that experiences peace and understanding, if only for a single day.

Shot in widescreen black and white by Mauro Pinheiro Jr. to emphasize the extrareality of the situation, this film is absolutely stunning. Every frame is carefully composed, like an illustration in a book of fairy tales, yet the film also offers some wonderful discoveries of life in this region of Brazil (Pontal do Massambaba, near the district of Monte Alto in Arraial do Cabo). I was fascinated by the salt “farms” and the simple way the workers extract the salt from the water by spreading the water to aid evaporation and then shoveling the salt into wheelbarrows.

Nunes, a former sound designer, uses his skills to assemble as many as 80 audiotracks to create a film that is as luscious to listen to as watch. For example, when Iraci and Concepção enter the inn, he shoots from a high angle, revealing only a corner of the windmill that creaks eerily and rhythmically, a true wheel of fortune turning for one particular life. The performances are as understatedly telling as the screenplay, with Simone Spoladore, in particular, giving a virtuoso performance and Victor Motta very appealing as Clarice’s brother and playmate.

Nunes should be a strong contender in the New Director competition of this year’s film festival. See why by making sure to put the mysterious, beautiful, and moving Southwest on your festival schedule.

Southwest will screen Friday, October 7, 8:15 p.m., Saturday, October 8, 12:30 p.m., and Tuesday, October 18, 2:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

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  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    25th/09/2011 to 10:22 pm

    “Shot in widescreen, black and white to emphasize the extrareality of the situation by Mauro Pinheiro Jr., this film is absolutely stunning. Every frame is carefully composed, like an illustration in a book of fairy tales, yet the film also offers some wonderful discoveries of life in this region of Brazil (Pontal do Massambaba, near the district of Monte Alto in Arraial do Cabo). I was fascinated by the salt “farms” and the simple way the workers extract the salt from the water by spreading the water to aid evaporation and then shoveling the salt into wheelbarrows. ”

    I gathered this from the screen caps. Eye-popping. This is another that more than intrigues me for a host of reasons. Love that opening paragraph geographical hook. Buffo.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/09/2011 to 8:38 am

    Thanks, Sam. We saw a 2-hour+ cut that really takes its time and builds its imagery. I understand a shortened version was released in Brazil. I would not have wanted to lose one of those images myself.

  • Sergio Barreto spoke:
    13th/10/2011 to 8:08 pm

    Hi Marilyn. I discovered your site while writing my own review of “Southwest,” and I’m glad I did! Linked to it too.

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