(An overview of the 11th Utopia UK Portuguese Film Festival)
It says much for the ingenuity of this country's film festival organisers that so many events have taken place successfully online during the pandemic. Hopes of covering the UK Jewish and Kinoteka Polish events on this site were dashed by a lack of access to the films screening, but it was nice to hear that they went well. Maybe we'll have more luck next year.
We end the 2020 season with the 11th Utopia UK Portuguese Film Festival, which is running from 21-28 November. Apologies for the coverage being late, but a certain email provider prevented access to the links for a week through what can only be described as gross incompetence. Hopefully, late reviews are better than none at all.
Staged in partnership with Universidade Lusófona and Universidade de São Paulo, Utopia managed to assemble eight features and 33 shorts, along with 12 live conversations. As always, the selection came from across the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa to ensure that UK viewers get a chance to see the latest Lusophonic films from around the world.
Among the shorts on show are Leonor Noivo's All I Imagine, Guilherme Daniel's A Strange Cabin in the Mist, Pedro Brito's Fado of a Grown Man, Ana Vaz's Stone Age, Clarissa Campolina's Solon, and Clara Vilas Boas and Emanuele Sales's Phosphene. There will also be a chance to see Mozambican director Yara Costa's Between Me and God, which focuses on the choices facing a young Muslim woman.
On the feature front, we begin in Brazil with Renato Barbieri's Pureza, which is only the documentary and tele-specialist's second fictional feature after his 2005 debut, As Vidas de Maria, which starred Ingra Liberato as a woman who was born 21 April 1960, the same day that Brasilia became the national capital. Harking back to the 1990s, this sophomore outing takes us to the Amazon rainforest for a journey of discovery that raises many issues that are still salient today.
It doesn't auger well when Pureza Lopes Loyola (Dira Paes) breaks a plate after learning that son, Abel (Matheus Abreu), is quitting their Bacabal brick-making business to go prospecting for gold. When he fails to arrive at the camp in Itaituba, Pureza closes up her home and sets off to find him. Forced to stay over in Marabá, she befriends a prostitute (Goreth Ribeiro), who thinks that Abel has been recruited by João Leal (Alberto Silva Neto), a gato for Serjão (Giulio Lopes), a wealthy contract farmer from São Paolo. Father Flavio (Claudio Barros) warns Pureza that they are not men to be messed with, but she is desperate to find her son and take him home.
Taken on as a cook, Pureza is driven into the countryside and gets to meet the boss, Narciso (Flavio Bauraqui) and his henchman, Zé Gordinho (Sergio Sartorio). She soon realises that they are brutal exploiters of decent men desperate for work and care more for the expensive machinery than the workers. When Piaui (Guto Galvão) falls ill after drinking dirty pond water, Pureza tries to nurse him and brings food for his friends. However, Narciso catches her using the radio to find out if anyone has seen Abel and warns her that she will be punished if she steps out of line.
Having overheard Narciso and Serjão discussing a big deal over the radio, Pureza is appalled to witness a backlash against Piaui, Francisco and Odilon (Enoque Marinho) when the dare to complain to Narciso about the fact they haven't been paid for two months. When he informs them that they owe him money for transportation, accommodation and food, they threaten him and Zé marches them out to the hanging tree. Odilon is bound by his ankles and Piaui is executed by Narciso for refusing to shoot him. Francisco takes the rifle and kills his friend and Pureza consoles him during a campfire Bible reading that night that he had no option.
When she overhears Zé boasting about the fact that he shot Francisco when he tried to escape, Pureza realises she has to act quickly if she is to find and save Abel. Conning Narciso into taking her into town, she asks Fr Flavio for help and he introduces her to Elenice Nune (Mariana Nunes), who is an inspector for the Ministry of Labour. She takes Pureza to an anti-slavery forum in Brasilia and introduces her to supportive senator, Chico Campos (Antonio Grassi). But Pureza suspects he is in cahoots with Serjão and, when the Ministry of Justice dismisses her testimony as tittle-tattle, she volunteers to go back to the farm with Fr Flavio to get photographic and audio proof of the crimes being committed by Narciso and his crew.
As she is recording evidence, one of her former charges, Arrow (João Gott), appears with a rifle. He has been promoted to watchdog, but he can't bring himself to harm Pureza and is gunned down by Zé for letting her escape. She is wounded by a stray bullet, but her courage sparks a press campaign against slavery and the government sets up the Special Mobile Inspection Unit to root out the evil. Between 1995-2017, the SMIU released 52,000 workers across Brazil and we see a photography of the real Pureza with Abel, whom she found at one of Serjão's camps.
Closing captions remind us that 369,000 are still enslaved in Brazil and that the federal government and congress are currently doing little to rectify the situation. However, the global figure stood at 40.3 million in 2018 and we should be ashamed that such inhumanity persists two centuries after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished. Renato Barbieri more than does his bit to bring the scandal to a wider audience and he is ably served by cinematographer Felipe Reinheimer, who makes the most of the Pará locales to emphasise the isolation of the camps and the ease with which the bosses and their oppos can confine them.
Flavio Bauraqui makes a chillingly sinister villain, especially when he casts a lustful proprietorial eye over Pureza as she works. She is played with spirit, tenacity and dignity by Dira Paes, who clearly recognises that this is one of the most significant roles in her 35-year career. The workers might well have been better defined and more time might have been spent exploring Pureza's bond with Abel, who comes across as brattishly petulant in the opening scenes. Such, however, is the unique strength of a mother's love.
Barbieri has also allied with Neto Borges to go deeper into the slavery issue in the documentary, Servidão. Joining it on the actuality slate are Paulo Carneiro's Bostofrio, où Le Ciel Rejoint la Terre and Leonor Amaral's Born With the Thunderstorm, which respectively profile an absent grandfather from the village of Trás-os-Montes and the career of Portugal's leading neo-realist film-maker, Manuel Guimarães (1915-1975).
Finally, we return to fiction and Brazil for Camilo Cavalcanti's King Kong in Asunción. Seemingly no relation to the great Alberto Cavalcanti - the Rio-born director who played such a key role in the Ealing story with films like Went the Day Well? (1942) - Cavalcanti made his feature bow with The History of Eternity (2017). However, he has mostly concerned himself with documentaries, which makes this redemption saga about an elderly hitmn something of a departure. What makes it all the more poignant is that its star passed away shortly after the film was finished.
Having shot the man who had been trussed in the boot of a 4x4, a white-bearded hitman (Andrade Júnior) torches the car and walks across Bolivia's bleached Salar de Uyuni pulling a trolley case behind him. Speaking in Guarani, the Voice of Death (Ana Ivanova) informs us that the killer is tired of his trade and seeks to spend his last days in tranquility. He lights a candle at a village church and tries to pray for forgiveness. But he doesn't believe and, consequently, is tormented by a conscience that keeps him awake at night, Indeed, not even the booze he swigs down by the bottle can drive away the ghosts who approach his campfire to accuse him of dispatching them for profit.
Depositing his gun in a hole in a wall, the old man trundles into a remote foothills hotel and informs Chiquitano (Juan Carlos Aduviri) that he is going to retire. He smokes a cigar and gets drunk with his longtime associate, who confides that he is suffering from syphilis. But the narrator knows that Chiquitano's days are numbered, as the sozzled assassin struggles to his feet and shuffles out on to the railway lines criss-crossing the salt flats.
The narrator reveals that the drifter had gone into hiding in Paraguay some four decades ago after killing a politician in Brazil. There, he had fallen in love with Constanza (Georgina Genes), who had given birth to a daughter after he had advised her to have an abortion and fled. Years later, he had been recognised by a trucker who knew Constanza and who told him that he was a father, Ever since, the news had gnawed away at the hitman until he had decided to travel to Asunción to meet his child for the first time.
As he travels by bus, the old man could be just another passenger. He also looks eminently ordinary as he watches a religious procession and a street theatre performance about indigenous peoples fighting back against their colonial exploiters. In his mind, he revisits old crimes and torments himself with the time he has missed with María (Ede Colina). Sitting in a hotel room, he practicises introducing himself in the mirror and becomes tearful when he sings the lullaby with which he would have rocked his baby to sleep.
Slumping into a chair in a dive bar, the old-timer collects a holdall full of cash and spends some of it on the courier's flash car. He checks into a luxury hotel in the city and wallows in the bath with a fine cigar. Following dinner in his gut-stretched dressing-gown, he reflects on the people he had murdered from all walks of life. Disgusted that he should be racked with guilt while those who had paid him sleep soundly, he removes the portraits of various Paraguayan dignitaries from the bar wall and urinates on them.
Collecting some photographs that a snoop accomplice had taken on María and her family, the old man seeks out the barber (Fernando Teixeira) who had once saved his life by removing a bullet. He has a haircut and shave before they make for a casino and spend their winnings on drink and girls. The narrator informs us that the hitman would leave his friend the BMW and a tidy sum, which he would blow within two years before using his razor to slit his own throat. But they would both remember this last night when they had approached the shipwreck of old age from the same prow.
The next day, he had visited Constanza, who had been pleased to see him. But she was riddled with cancer and close to death and Maria's rejection of her father pained her. As he felt the freeze-frame sting of her slap across his face, he thinks back to the childhood moment when he (Maycon Douglas) had witnessed the massacre of his entire family and had only been spared death himself by an empty revolver. In the narrator's opinion, that was the precise second that his heart turned to icy stone and he became able to face death with such sang-froided disdain.
Devastated, the velho hits the first bar he finds and listens to the landlady's tale of woe until closing time. Staggering into a seedy joint, he is latched on to by a pair of good-time girls (Lucrecia Carrillo and Laura Marín) who lace his drink and escort him back to a hotel room to fleece him. They are scared when he produces a gun, but continue to flatter and taunt him, as he blunders around the room with his shirt off. Suddenly, he begins to bellow at them and beat his chest like a great ape and they flee in terror. Picking up the pistol, the old man places a single bullet in the cylinder and spins it. His face morphs with that of his younger self, as the barrel touches his temple. But, once again, he is spared death and the film ends with him waddling into the distance pulling his case behind him.
The narrator's mention that we might encounter this character again in the movies reinforces the impression that he is a fotofit of such diverse figures as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Orson Welles's Falstaff and Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, as well as King Kong. He is brilliantly played by Andrade Júnior, who won a posthumous festival award for his performance in his native Brazil. Combining pugnacity with pathos, he displays a physical honesty that makes his emotional rawness all the more affecting. However, Ana Ivanova's slow-drawled Hadean narration adds considerably to the air of world-weariness that pervades every frame.
Directing with imagination and flair, Camilo Cavalcanti manages to cash a noirish pall over the dazzling white salt flats that are as evocatively photographed by Camilo Soares as the shanty town saloons and big city pleasure palaces. Caio Zatti's meticulously paced editing and Shaman Herrera melancholic Morriconesque score also play their part. But this is all about veteran stage and screen actor who recognised the role of a lifetime and played it to the hilt.