QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Based on Milton Hatoum’s novel O Adeus do Comandante (The Captain’s Farewell”, in free translation), River of Desire is a very Brazilian film in which director Sergio Machado returns to what he does best: the romantic drama. His often underrated and overseen 2005 film Lower City also deals with a woman who falls in love with more than one male (the director later veered into other genres, such as comedy in 2015 with The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, and documentary in 2016 with A Luta do Século). In fact, two of the 10 biggest box office hits in the history of Brazilian cinema – Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Bruno Barreto, 1975) and Lady on the Bus (Neville de Almeida, 1978) – also feature female protagonists who become romantically or sexually involved with two or more partners.
This topic is particularly remarkable for a country such as Brazil, a society that often encourages men to sleep around while women stay “beautiful, demure and at home”. Instead, the female leads of these four films are empowered women unabashed in their desire. They put men through the wringer, in a peculiar subversion of gender power relations. The despondent males resort to draconian measures of all sorts in order to establish or restore their toxic and fragile masculinity. That’s when it all get ugly.
This story takes place in the Brazilian Amazon, in a small riverside town somewhere near the city of Manaus. The time is probably the ’80s or the ’90s, judging by the telephonic and photographic devices that appear on screen. Dalberto (Daniel de Oliveira) and his girlfriend Anaira (Sophie Charlotte) enjoy a very happy relationship complete with constant steamy sex. Dalberto lives with his younger brother Armando (Gabriel Leone) and their older sibling Dalmo (Romulo Braga). Their father passed away years earlier. Their mother eloped with a “gringo” when the three of them were very small, in a traumatic episode that almost drove Dalberto to suicide. This attitude strongly suggests that he will not tolerate losing yet another women.
Dalberto is a the captain of a small river boat, which is in urgent need of repair. He is offered a large sum of money for taking an unknown cargo (presumably drugs) as well as an old man wanted by the police to neighbouring Peru via Colombia. This reward will enable him to fix his crumbling boat and his beloved Anaira out for dinner on her approaching birthday. He promises her that he will return in time for the occasion. Both Armando and Dalmo are infatuated with their charming and exceedingly beautiful sister-in-law, who is often sauntering around in their house even after Dalberto departs. The older sibling fulfils his romantic and sexual needs by photographing Anaira, masturbating at her while she sleeps, or even hiring a prostitute that looks just like her. The younger and more handsome Armando is willing to take his chances further, particularly now that Dalberto is away on his work mission. All for actors deliver very strong performances.
Argentinian cinematographer Adrian Teijido deserves high praise for his contribution. His lush and exquisite photography provides the perfect backdrop for this deeply emotional and visceral story. Nothing short of spectacular. The skin of the characters glows with ardor and sweat. The towering Amazon vegetation offers them respite, as all four burn with desire. Large swathes of migratory birds remind Dalberto of the fleeting nature of life. The scene in which Dalmo masturbates is particularly impressive: chiaroscuro lighting emphasises his dribbling mouth, while a fine curtain mesh gives the action a touch of distancing (as if reminding our lewd male that the desired woman is out of reach).
The soundtrack adds to final touch to this elegantly crafted movie. Both the music score and the diegetic songs are very Brazilian. The latter consists entirely of brega tunes, a romantic music genre from the Brazilian Amazon (“brega” means “tacky”, or “cheesy”). At one point, Anaira dances sensually with Armando and Dalmo to a brega version of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. A scene that got my heart immediately dancing, and which I would add to this little list that I compiled a few years ago. This is inherently Brazilian swagger and passion at their very best, without slipping into tiresome cliches.
River of Desire is showing in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It is my favourite film to take the event’s top prize, the Best Picture award. I would hazard a guess that it will become a classic of Brazilian cinema.