Saturday, February 2, 2013

Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (Found Memories) - 2012

This film is one of the most unusual Brazilian films I've seen so far, and I loved it. What makes it so unusual? Well, there is no romance, no violence, no sex, no chase scenes, and in fact very little action of any sort at all. It doesn't take place in a big city, it's not in a favela, it's not in the Amazon basin, and it's not in the middle of the sertão. In fact, it takes place in a mythical village in some unnamed region of Brazil. 

It's almost devoid of plot and has very little dialogue. Much of the dialogue is repetitive, by design, and the film ends up raising more questions than it answers. By now, you're probably wondering what on earth makes the film so great, and I freely acknowledge that not everyone will find it as engaging as I did.

I hesitate to call it an "art film," because that will only scare off more people, but it's hard to think of a better description, because director Julia Murat clearly approached this project as a work of art. The shots resemble a series of striking photographs, so that the film almost comes across as a slideshow with each slide containing minimal action. I guess you could say it's a series of vignettes.

Each shot is beautifully composed with a photographer's eye, which reinforces the story line, such as it is. The film takes place in a tiny, decrepit village in Brazil, populated by a handful of ancient residents and a priest who says mass in the equally tiny and decrepit church. The daily routines of two of the villagers, Madalena and Antônio, are established in the first 20 or 30 minutes of the film, so you have to be patient. 

Madalena (Sonia Guedes) lives alone and prepares the bread for the village early every morning. She brings the bread in her basket to the run-down shop of Antônio (Luis Serra), and puts them in the cabinet while he prepares their coffee. After they have their coffee, they join the rest of the villagers for mass. 

When she's not at Antônio's shop or at mass, Madalena spends her time tending flowers at the village's decrepit cemetery, which is locked and has an "entry prohibited" sign on its crumbling gate.

Madalena on her morning walk to Antônio's shop

Madalena and Antônio and their morning routine

The second or third time you watch these two go through their same rituals, right down to exchanging the exact same words during their morning argument about how to arrange the rolls in the cabinet, you begin to wonder if it's worth it. It is.

Madalena returns home one day to find a young woman standing in her garden. The young woman, Rita (Lisa Favero), is a photographer who has been roaming in the area and wants to stay at Madalena's for a few days. Madalena asks her how she got there, and Rita replies, "On foot." Madalena looks suspicious, but she agrees.  

The rest of the film shows the gradual changes that occur as Rita interacts with Madalena and the rest of the villagers. Most of them are reluctant to have anything to do with her at first, but even the hardest cases warm up by the end. Don't look for some massive overhaul of their lives, though, because that's not what this film is about. The houses and buildings are just as decrepit at the end as they were at the beginning, but the people themselves are changed, and not just the villagers, but Rita, too.

Rita photographing three villagers
Favero plays the part of Rita perfectly. When Madalena enters the room that Rita is using, Rita asks her to knock the next time, but she does so in a respectful way. She manages to enter into the villagers' lives without being intrusive, always backing off if they seem stand-offish, and slowly earning their trust. I have to emphasize the word "slowly," because this is not a film for viewers who want things to happen quickly. While the film only covers about a week's worth of time, it does so at an almost real-time pace. The pay-off of this approach is that you begin to see the village through Rita's eyes, and all of the ancient buildings with sagging boards, dusty corners, eroded stones, and chipped paint, begin to acquire a beauty that Rita is able to see.

Rita out on her own, exploring the village
I loved watching Rita use her various cameras, especially her pinhole cameras for long exposure shots, and then watching as the pictures develop.  A key theme, for me anyway, is that Rita, as an outsider, sees the village and its inhabitants differently from the way they see themselves. 

One of my favorite scenes has Rita and Madalena listening together to Rita's iPod, each with one of the earbuds. They are listening to a recording by Fernando Alves and Mário Reis from the 1930's called "Fita Amarela." After listening for a while, Fernanda removes the earbud and announces, "I like serenades better."

In many ways, the real star of this film is Sonia Guedes, whose sensitive and realistic portrayal of an older woman rivals that of Fernanda Montenegro in "Central Station." It takes both courage and extreme acting skill for an actress to tackle roles such as these, which are not only completely unglamorous, but which require that she openly display and even highlight the signs of age that most actors go to great lengths to conceal.

Dialogue in this film is so rare, and exchanges so brief, that the film didn't give me much of a chance to practice my Portuguese listening skills, but that's not a complaint, just an observation.  

By the end of the film, I felt that what I had just seen was in many ways a tribute to photography as an art form, and to photographers as artists. I know that there's more to it than that, but the presence of photography in the film itself (the cameras are almost characters themselves), and the photographic nature of the cinematography are major elements. 

So, if you're a photographer, or if you appreciate great photography, or if you simply are able to enjoy a beautiful film that develops on its own time schedule, give "Found Memories" a try. 

It's available on DVD from Amazon, and Netflix has it as a high definition streaming video, which is the way I saw it. Subtitles are clear and easy to read.

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