Vidas Secas

09/26/2010

Brazil / 1963 / Portuguese

Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos

With Átila Iório, Maria Ribeiro, Joffre Soares

Still from 'Vidas Secas'Ravaged by white, blistering sunlight a husband and wife, along with their two young sons, journey across the parched scrubland of Brazil’s northeast. By all appearances they have abandoned hope, having no use for it, since hope does little to sustain life. What they cling to and foster is their own resourcefulness, their adaptability, and, when necessary, their servility. The man, named Fabiano, and his wife, Sinhá Vitória, take whatever menial work is to be found, being two of many who move around a land whose scarce resources are owned and pitilessly guarded by the very few.

Vidas Secas takes place in the early 1940’s, when the “green revolution” that raised crop yields and quashed hunger throughout much of the country was still a couple of decades away. At the time that the film is set Brazil was rapidly improving its urban structure, and while it was busy becoming cohesive as a unified state, much of its vast and largely rural landmass was being ignored, many areas literally left in the dust of the nation’s progress. When director dos Santos started to work on adapting Graciano Ramos’ novel of the 1930’s, questions of land distribution, and what to do with so many landless people, were still quite prominent in public debate. The resulting film is an answer without a solution, a demonstration of the difficulties of life under an old an inequitable system, and its production values are as harsh, heartbreaking, and immediate as the privations it attempts to show.

A rainstorm comes on, seemingly a relief from the harshness of the day, but its arrival only signals a fresh hell for the family. They squat in a disused farmhouse until the sun reappears, followed by the landowner, who tells them to vacate his property. Eventually, however, he agrees to hire Fabiano as a ranch hand. Another blessing? Not so, as Fabiano soon learns. He finds himself being economically exploited in his arrangement with the wealthy farmer, his earnings cunningly fleeced from him until he has nothing left to show for his and his family’s work. Illiterate and unable to assert his right to a decent wage (if such a right even exists for him), Fabiano first falls victim to his employer, then the brutality of the local police force, and then the tax collector. The latter seems to materialize when Fabiano tries to sell some of his own pig meat to a woman in town. Afterwards he is sure to conduct any further entrepreneurial outings discreetly.

Still from 'Vidas Secas'The family settles in the unnamed town, if temporarily, and they go from a close-knit, mutually supportive lifestyle, which they had while on the move, to the more fragmented, individually functional unit of a domestic setting. From this point on there is little in the way of story arc, with framing shots of the landscape and the pale, ringed sun giving a sense of an unending continuum to the proceedings. At times their level of deprivation gets worse, but they persist throughout the episodic narrative, the highs and lows being only relative to the basic stasis of their world. There is no acceleration, few falters, and certainly no rest.

The mother makes an attempt to explain damnation to the older boy, not realizing that their own situation would provide a decent reference point. He pronounces the word “hell,” measuring it out carefully, repeatedly, all the while examining the world around the farmhouse, his immediate purview, from various angles. Hell is so often thought of as a place of activity, of attributes, but it could also be a place of lack, of perpetual hunger as well. “Inferno…” – it is a farmhouse; it is a country road; it is no place whatever.

The film fits in with the neorealist separation of immediate events occurring onscreen from their greater context, or treating the text itself as a framing example of defining social issues. Sinhá Vitória and Fabiano take what they are offered, and refrain from causing any disturbance, in the interest of self-preservation. Their simple speech and unaffectionate family life is a product of their hunger and extreme poverty. Like the Joads, there is a certain archetypal, every-family quality to them, their troubles mirroring what happens across the country under a wide variety of circumstances. Unfairness rules their everyday lives, the downward gradient of cruelty beginning with those higher up who abuse the adults, who are in turn strict towards their children. After dressing in their best they go into town for a religious celebration. A local police officer attempts to humiliate Fabiano in public, and when he stands up for himself, he is lashed on the back and kept in a jail cell for the night. On the way home a group of leftist revolutionaries gives him an opportunity to join them in their fight, but he thinks of his responsibility towards his family, and declines.

The searing, high contrast photography was done mainly with “God’s light,” as dos Santos calls it. Diegetic noises are magnified to match the intensity of the imagery, rough and beautiful as it is. The sound of an ox cart moving slowly over the bitter earth appears frequently, not in the background, but as a droning and protracted shriek, an inescapable sob of toil and decrepitude. At one point it is joined by the wavering violin of the boss’s daughter’s music instructor. Fabiano stands in the big house, so to speak (foreign territory for him), holding his hat reverently while requesting the money that is due to him. The farmer, having breakfast at his simple table, certainly doesn’t live large, but at least large enough to allow him to subjugate the migrants who live on his property.

Still from 'Vidas Secas'Sinhá Vitória pines for nice things, like a leather bed to call her own. She perpetually laments their living “like animals.” Because an animal’s days are numbered when its meat or skin become more valuable than its labor. One can see how the migrant family would feel like animals carried along for other people’s rise to prosperity, helped and cared for while they are useful, but with the possibility of death accompanying their every step. The family walks the length of a wooden fence, the scene unfolding in such a way that dos Santos is able to truly convince us that there is something worthwhile waiting round the bend. When they get to the end of the fence, there is an even greater expanse of land in front of them, and at this they do not register any surprise.

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