Vidas Secas (1963)

30 03 2008

Perhaps not the best Cinema Novo film, but undoubtedly the most striking. It plays out sort of like the missing link between Ozu and Herzog, even though it doesn’t contain everything that is great about them. Understandably, the characters are never quite as fleshed out as they are in an Ozu film, and the visceral, sponteanous energy of Herzog’s work is never quite present, either. Still, this is pretty impressive company to place Nelson Pereira dos Santos with, especially after only one viewing. The film is far from perfect, but considering it’s ambitions, some flaws are expected.

A family of four drifts into a small town in 1940s Brazil. The father makes his living as a cowhand, his wife works around their “house” and the two children run around chasing sheep and other various things. They continue to existence day in and day out but with many conflicts, never coming close to being secure or as the mother puts it “like real people.” Instead, their lives are constant struggles involving nature, the police, and themselves.

It’s hard to watch this and not think of the similarly barren landscapes found in Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. Because of the visual similarities, it’s a bit of letdown when the film begins to drag towards the middle. Ironically enough, the early sequences of the family just walking are riveting but some of the forced drama just feels dull. Really, there was no way for the film to live up to its dialogue-less 15 minute opening, which begins with a five minute static shot of the family walking from a fairly large distance. Going off the strength of the first section, though, is enough for me to pretty much love the rest. It never quite feels as spontaneous but it is still very interesting to watch, if one is the type that is interested in this type of Herzogian cinema.

Where the visuals do reflect what Herzog would eventually do, it also feels like the family-driven character drama of Ozu. This doesn’t work out quite as great for the film, though, as it never really decides on it’s intentions. This leaves a lot of room for sequences that are meant to be visceral but also reveal a lot of insight and for the most part, they come off rather stagey. A perfect example of this is when one of the brothers goes outside and repeatedly says “hell” as he plays with his dog. On paper it’s easy to see why I’ve used the Herzog comparison so many times, but on film, it comes off as being an attempt to inject insight into the character. Yes, this “attempt” is admirable but it seems that the film Santos wanted to make is more grounded in the visceral, he should have realized this and focus on more scenes like the one when they brand cows. Still, this is a very impressive film, especially since Herzog had not even begun making full-length features. A huge step in the right direction with only some minor drawbacks.

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One response

12 05 2008
dan

I find Vidas Secas one of the Cinema Novo’s masterpieces. It reminds me the stunning “La Perla”, too, for the epic traits, maybe.

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