Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 04, 2021 2:30 pm 
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Repercussions of the murder of a trans person in Brazil's Centro Oeste

Madiano Marcheti takes an overlooked issue and makes it more haunting by indirection. A body is "found" (by the camera) at the outset in a vast soya field where it's doubtless been dumped. It is the corpse of Madalena, a young trans woman. Brazil has more than twice the number of trans murders than the next Latin American country, Mexico. But while the film points out Brazil's terrible trans statistic in a closing caption, Marcheti isn't interested in the "issue" simply as such or the police procedural aspects of the narrative. The film doesn't explore the murder. Instead it quietly follows brief periods in the lives of three people indirectly touched by this event but unrelated to each other. The fluency of the filmmaking, the perfect pitch of the scenes, are what make this an impressive, memorable, and formally audacious debut. Unlike the proverbial pistol that must be used if it is introduced in the play, a corpse need not be explained but will nonetheless greatly heighten the focus and tension of what follows. And the apparent unconcern about this individual death is itself a pungent comment on a widespread and terrible problem.

The film establishes how vast the soy fields are. It turns out they have been consolidated in the hands of a single agribusiness family, but that's not explained. We see the plants waving in the wind and big agricultural machines to work them. But men have to go through doing something by hand (picking weeds?). Overseeing the whole thing is a veritable cloud of drones (to check on the men, perhaps?) and ironically looking, as if spying, groups of rheas, flightless birds with long waving necks and long beaks who seem to be scanning the horizon, enigmatically looking for trouble.

Marcheti doesn't have to connect the three parts because they're not connected; that's the point; but they have a rising and falling dramatic arc with sharp internal contrasts. They start out cheerily with a portrait of the local population with its poverty, pursuit of pleasure, and sexism; move on to a unique individual whose special connection to the event heightens tension to a high pitch; then taper off with a comrade of the deceased who is sad but philosophical, and, after all, pursuing her own pursuits, but by her nature more affected - and endangered - than others.

Luziane (Natália Mazarim) is a pretty young cis gender woman who works as hostess at a noisy club called Texas. Her primary concern about the disappearance of Madalena is that the latter owes her money, and she is struggling to pay for her new Vespa-style motorbike. Young men surround her and vaguely menace her. She has to get tough with a wise-ass young "bro" who tries to park his vehicle in front of the club, and she stands watching a group of showoff "bros" doing flashy wheelies with their bikes. She actually gets into Madalena's little pad and hunts for money. We learn the farm workers live in rows of tiny cement hovels.

Jump to the other economic extreme, Cristiano (Rafael de Bona), a tall, good looking, but not very secure young man whose father owns the whole vast farm and from whom he expects to inherit it, and whose mother is in politics with an election coming. It appears that he visits the farm every day and oversees what's going on, while he must field over-critical and over-demanding calls from his absent father. His discovery of the body puts him in a state of panic. This is bad for the farm and could be ruinous for is mother's election. It is his responsibility to hush it up but he doesn't know what to do. He can't tell anyone about it, not even his friend Gildo (Antonio Salvador), who he wants to have help him. His father's call demanding he start harvesting that night leads him to escape into vaping and drinking, and, thus fortified, he takes Gildo out to the fields but there is no understanding. There's excellent buildup of tension throughout this sequence and, if you are identifying, you are seeing how totally everything, for Cristiano, revolves around Cristiano.

Last we spend time with Bianca (Pâmella Yule), a young trans woman who revisits Madalena's abandoned house with younger trans friends and they each gather up some possessions as mementoes. Later Bianca goes on an outing with two friends. Does Madalena appear as a ghost to her? (She believes in flying saucers.) There is a feeling of homage or farewell, but also that they are not lost in sorrow. It's over. It happened. But the stream they bathe in has the air of being a place where you might meet up with crocodiles or snakes. It's a symbol of the danger trans people, particularly trans women of color, live in everywhere, not just in Brazil. But with Marcheti, what impresses is an ability to drop into lives with astonishing quickness and confidence, relating them effortlessly to a larger, and complex, situation. Use of the whole milieu, the unforced portraiture of the Centro Oeste region, is assured and impressive, too.

Madalena, 85 mins., first showed, in progress, at San Sebastiàn Sept. 2019, and debuted at Rotterdam Feb. 3, 2021 (virtual). Screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021).

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