Vazante is a difficult film. Morally, thematically, and visually, there’s a lot to chew on. But it’s also extraordinarily minimalist: little dialogue, no music, spare editing, long shots. Co-writer and director Daniela Thomas sets a pace that’s so languid it verges on the immobile.
I’ve never seen movie that had so much to say, and yet in which so little happens.
The story opens in 1821, out on a cattle ranch in the wilds of the Brazilian mountains. António (Adriano Carvalho) is the ranch’s owner, and is just returning from a long journey moving livestock. His wife dies in childbirth before he can get home. Carvalho plays António’s reaction as a study in repression: he says nothing, his craggy features barely move, his beard hides the set of his mouth. Only his sunken eyes betray any intensity as he rips the gowns he’d brought home for the child.
Soon afterwards, Antonio’s brother-in-law Bartholomeu (Roberto Audio) arrives with his family. He’s there for moral support. But António also stands above Bartholomeu in the class hierarchy, leading the latter to treat the former with a certain stiff caution.
During dinner, Bartholomeu’s teenage daughter Beatriz (Luana Nastas) playfully snatches away António’s shoes and hides them. The incident sparks something in the rancher, and he marries Beatriz soon after. But despite the gentle and positive spin Vazante puts on their initial meeting, things rapidly become unsettling: António is relentlessly unreadable, and the age difference between the two is massive. Eventually Bartholomeu and the rest of the family must depart, and António sets off on more cattle drives, leaving Beatriz alone on the ranch.
The other subplots focus on the ranch’s slaves, and involve a similar and far more dramatic moral vertigo.
Our initial instinct is to sympathize with António: he’s just suffered a heartbreaking loss, and polite, quiet and reserved. Then Thomas and her co-writer, Beto Amaral, sprinkle in various scenes outlining daily life for António’s slaves, and the cruel way they are dispensed with as soon as they become an inconvenience. Antonio’s second-in-command is Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveria), an African himself, whose fierce loyalty to his boss creates a moral contradiction that festers throughout the film.
Vazante also attends to the sociological details of the slave trade: at one point a new troop of slaves arrives, some speaking a native African language Jeremias isn’t familiar with. This, too, causes tension.
Then there is Feliciana (Jai Baptista), who labors under a silent understanding that she is obliged to show up in António’s bedroom when needed. Meanwhile, Feliciana’s son and Beatriz strike up a friendship during the rancher’s long absences.
Cinematographer Inti Briones shoots all this in stark black and white, that captures the rich detail of both the Brazilian landscape and the characters’ troubled expressions. Black and white film’s cultural associations with the silent era also opens up a certain psychological space for Vazante’s lack of dialogue. We’re cued to study faces and pay attention to tableaus to draw inferences. It’s a dreamy approach to film you don’t find often, and that I appreciated. But it also means the movie requires concentration, attention, and patience. Thomas takes a her time putting all the narrative’s various pieces in place, and only once that task is done does Vazante start to move forward with relentless logic. If you don’t think you can keep your brain engaged for two hours without the help of virtually any stimuli, it will be a slog.
A lot of current feminist critique focuses, often with good reason, on the entitled and fragile male ego. What’s interesting about Vazante is how it suggests those qualities may be trained or even enforced upon men. Thomas does not shoot, and Carvalho does portray, Antonio as a monster. Mostly, he actually seems on the brink of tears or exhaustion; a prisoner of his privilege more than a beneficiary. He treats both his slaves and his wife as disposable property, but usually with rote obligation rather than any depth of feeling. That makes his moments of rage all the weirder: Is he genuinely infuriated? Or is he just at a loss for any other way to react?
Yet Thomas never allows her camera to stray long from Jeremias, Feliciana, Beatriz and the other characters. So we’re acutely aware of the persistent unease they all feel navigating around such a man. The power of the ending comes largely from the people under Antonio’s thumb behaving with a decency that seems utterly out of his reach, and Antonio’s own horrified bafflement at this fact.
It’s a striking thing to witness. It’s just a bit of a chore getting there.