The beauty of the city of Recife is in the most unlikely places: stilted shacks in a muddy shanty town, open sewers, swimming rats, decaying food, dilapidated buildings and grafitied walls. Cláudio Assis portrays Recife is a strangely repulsive yet powerful, dazzling and even charming way. The director translated the dirt and chaos in his hometown into visual poetry.
Irandhir Santos – who is also the protagonist of Neighbouring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho/2012; click on the film title in order to accede to the review), made in the same city – plays marginal poet and bon vivant Zizo. He lives in a small community in the derelict Estelita docklands, where he mingles with bohemian and artists of all types. He enjoys sex with multiple partners, particularly bigger and older women. He advocates anarchy, free love and street nudity to those surrounding him. He gently wraps nearly every moment he lives in energetic and vigorous poetry.
In one key moment of the film, Zizo masturbates while touching and leaning into a photocopier. This scene is akin to one in Neighbouring Sounds, when Bia (Mave Jinkings) masturbates to the vibrations of a washing machine.
Pazinho (Matheus Nachtergaele) is one of Zizo’s best friend. who is desperately in love with a bosomy transvestite (he calls her “the man of my life”). Others close associates include the good-looking Boca (Juliano Cazarré) and Eneida (Nanda Costa). All these people seem to live as freely as they wish, and sexual experimentation (orgies, golden shower, etc) is an integral part of their lives. Poetry is almost invariably orgasmic.
Rat fever is an expression from Northeastern Brazil which means losing control, going insane. Just like in Ulrich Sedil’s Dog Days (the film title is a German expression with a very similar meaning), the characters in Rat Fever disregard social conventions. The difference is that the madness and defiance only lasts a few hot summer days in the Austrian piece, while in the Brazilian movie it feels like a lifetime statement. The rat fever contaminates the soul of the artist and his associates and simply does not wear off.
Cláudio Assis’s film is a affront to Brazilian middle class petit-bourgeois values and morals. It confronts and instigates the viewer by displaying sexual and poetic freedom in an overt and graphic manner. The average viewer does not appreciate such liberties, and the film is unsurprising that triggered estrangement and discomfort amongst mainstream audiences, with many viewers leaving the cinema theatre. Many labelled the film as tasteless and exploitative.
Rat Fever is indeed extremely dirty, be it for the golden showers, the orgies, the constant drunkenness or – most importantly – the shamelessness in experimenting. This dirt is both intriguing and beguiling, rendering the film exquisitely lyrical and profound. Just like his characters, Assis embraced artistic freedom upon making this subversive piece: the filming is entirely in black and white, the narrative is very loose and the camera angles are often very unusual (most sex sequences are filmed from above, as if God was mischievously peeking on the profane).
Oppression is also a central theme. In the end of the movie, Zizo is arrested, beaten and killed by the police. Biblical themes are also pervasive: Zizo’s poetry often questions whether God exists and Boca once jokes that neither heaven nor hell could be more fun than debauched Recife.
Rat Fever is a tribute to artistic and sexual freedom that adeptly uses poetry and explicit imagery as cinematic devices. Sadly, it has limited distribution outside Brazil, but worthwhile making an effort to find and to watch it. Cláudio Assis next film, Big Jato, will be launched this year.
DMovies selected Rat Fever as one of “the dirtiest Brazilian films of the past 10 years”, and it also made it to the top five. Don’t forget to vote for it if you think that it is the “dirtiest one of all” (poll on the top right).