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Praia Formosa

Audiences experience the dirty side of Brazilian history as a 19th century slave wakes up in present-day Rio - compelling drama premieres at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam


All great storytelling is a journey of sorts, and Praia Formosa – the second part of a proposed trilogy – is no exception. This is a rollercoaster ride into ugly side to Brazil’s history: slavery. The film focuses on Muanza (Lucília Raimundo), trafficked into Rio de Janeiro’s port region, who unwittingly wakes up in the modern day. Through her eyes, the audience sees the development of the African diaspora in Brazil, from servitude to free-wheeling dancers, although the film pulls no punches with its long, lingering shots, leaving viewers to ask how far they’ve come in the last two centuries.

The film starts with a selection of photographs, demonstrating the pier’s width. Beneath the tartar lies the memories of a myriad footsteps, where slaves walked in their droves from the kingdom of Congo. The slaves – much of the time, women – had to abandon their original identity in order to adopt another. In one sobering set piece, director Julia de Simone depicts a line of workers signing away their autonomy for a more uncertain life, their dreams and ambitions jotted down by quill, only to be locked away in a cupboard. The emotions, vast as they are, remain hidden, and Muanza only releases a burst of optimism when she walks by a modern-day motorway, her hips dancing to the sound of African drums pounding away in her ears.

Like Lázaro Ramos’s Executive Order (2020), Praia Formosa explores a side of Latin American history that has been strangely underexplored, but this is the superior effort, and certainly the better realised one because it shows the historiography with sheer raw nerve. But this isn’t a polemical venture, because director Simone clearly loves the region, considering the depths she goes to showcase the beauty of the region. Set almost entirely in Pequena Africa (Little Africa), Praia Formosa doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable questions, and unlike Ramos’s film, it doesn’t try to outline any solutions to Brazil’s real-life divisions. Instead, it just shows the reality of the situation with as much integrity as it can muster.

Simone wisely chooses to use as little music as possible, and utilises a textured tapestry of sound woven from the natural world. Whether it’s intentionally meditative or not is beside the point; the pace of the film follows the water that funnels through the ports. The rich world-building is the film’s greatest asset: Raimundo looks fantastic, her eyes exhibiting the screams that have lingered inside her body, peering over the hell that has served as her home for the last few years. The character that grows within the space is not the same woman who could have grown up in Africa, but she wakes up in a future that sympathises with this stunted growth, lifting her spirits up with chants and hymns.

This is not an impeccable product. The flaws are few, but they do include a tone deaf confession of love from master to servant, and some of the jump edits are out of step with the film’s more holistic pace. The lo-fi set up is simply too daring to feature a fast-paced cut from one setting to another. On the other hand, The film ends on a pitch-as perfect note.

Praia Formosa just premiered at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.

By Eoghan Lyng - 31-01-2024

Throughout a journey found through his own writings and the writings of other filmmakers, Eoghan has taken to the spirit of the surreal to find greater meaning from the real. He finds it far easier to...

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