Wednesday 22 May 2024

On demand: "Vidas Secas"

The temptation is to frame 1963's
Vidas Secas as a Brazilian Grapes of Wrath, as if writer-director Nelson Pereira dos Santos (adapting Graciliano Ramos) were confronting John Ford (adapting Steinbeck) before him. Wanna see a dustbowl? I'll show you a real dustbowl. A migrant family - mother, father, two children, dog - traipse across the barren flatlands, carrying their belongings (not much, all told), keeping eyes open for seasonal work, subsisting on handfuls of powder that may as well be sand. The sun beats down relentlessly. A pet parrot doesn't even make it out of the first five minutes alive, and barely seems worth barbequing, for all the meat it provides. Suffice to say, the Latin American experience of poverty proves altogether more bracing than its North American equivalent. For all the film's Cinema Novo credentials, for all that it translates the neo-realism of Bicycle Thieves to a more arid landscape yet, the prevailing editorial line is clear: how surreal it is that we allow our fellow man to live like this. Yet it doesn't have to be this way - and Vidas Secas owes its enduring classic status to dos Santos's alertness to resilient signs of life.

The dog chases after rodents (cuing some of world cinema's few canine POV shots); the buffoonish dad strains to pull his boots on and off; the dirt-smeared youngest treads proudly and defiantly in the old man's footsteps; the older child wraps his head around the idea of hell. It remains a struggle - particularly after dad falls foul of the law - and the genuinely infernal seems only ever a sunrise away. Yet the people filmed here are forever too busy and too spirited for Vidas Secas to slump listlessly into the realms of poverty porn. Instead, we are compensated with a richness of gesture and a real and rare compositional gift, the latter only the most visible illustration of the keenly cinematic intelligence at play. Where the father's landowner employer enjoys the playing of a professionally trained violinist, the family's progress is tracked by a single, unnervingly tenuous note of vibrato; and the closing stretch constructs a potent animals-only metaphor that predates Amores Perros by almost four decades. I wonder if one reason the film has dropped out of circulation in recent times is that the animals appear to suffer at least as much as the people trapped within these frames - but then any sentimentality would doubtless be considered a luxury hereabouts.

Vidas Secas is now streaming via

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