dir. Daniela Thomas. Brazil, 2017
Using the kind of monochrome that looks more detailed than color, Vazante explores an 18th century plantation still standing in the Brazilian backcountry. The big house is a plain two storey shoebox with a piazza. It's spare on the inside, too, except where a piece of fine furniture has been carried to this location on a mule train, set down in the middle of a wall and crowned with a brass tray and a candle. In the slave cabins, separated from the big house by a small, muddy clearing, the firelit objects are simple utensils and blankets.
The plantation and its played-out mine has been deeded to its drover -- one of the frontiersmen who link these outposts to the coastal cities by ninety-day caravans. Compared to this harsh, barefooted frontiersman (Adriano Carvalho), the late owner's extended family, who are hanging around hoping to marry back into their patrimony, are aristocrats without money. Aside from the times when they scream at a house slave who blunders into them coming around a corner, they are lovely and gentle.
When the drover is absent, and it falls to this leisure class to boss around the idle slaves from the useless mine, there is uncertainty on all sides about whether their minority or the much larger black majority can afford to use violence, and authority falls on a small group of trusted slaves or ex-slaves who guard the caravans against natives and are thus allowed to go armed. When the drover is present, there is a sort of stability of force in that he and the caravan guards cover a much larger black and white crowd using a few rifles, like a stick-up that never ends. The uncertainty then centers on this tyrant's mood swings and sexual appetites as his efforts to start his own dynasty are thwarted.
At the start of Vazante, the drover and his slave deputies are returning to the outpost with a chained-up party of African men whose language nobody understands. They are exotic to the other slaves, and the cliffs and forests of Brazil are exotic to them; their disorientation and search for a way out anchors long, anxious documentations of plants and skies, and sound captures of birds and footsteps whose sources we don't always see. Another aspect of the Brazilian slave system appears soon after they arrive, in the shape of a freeman (Fabrício Boliveira) who offers to convert the mining operation to coffee farming, because these new slaves can be broken in to a new task. He's a black version of the drover, ruthless to the Africans, but because he's lower on the ladder, a wage-worker, he himself contributes more effort, while the drover, energetic on the trail, spends his time at the plantation in a hammock with a view of the field. We also watch from the sidelines. We can see how coerced labor is letting the Europeans expand more rapidly into places that would not reward paid labor; the freeman is a human resources consultant helping a prospector from a Herzog movie to hang on to his impractical empire. We cannot easily guess what the freeman is thinking. Maybe he supposes that by managing the plantation more professionally, he avoids a crisis that will be taken out on the slaves, or maybe he has no concerns about slavery as long as he is the one holding the whip. He exceeds his role, though, when in his effort at crisis management he punishes a white person: the youngest daughter of the aristocratic family has formed a crush on a young slave, and the freeman knows that this will end in murder. That's because the drover has selected the same girl to bear his heir, once she begins menses. From the distant coast, he brings her a doll and, for later on, a wedding dress.
In its last third or so Vazante becomes a house tragedy about the young girl's marital enslavement. (The trailer emphasizes this part of the film.) Only here did I feel impatient with its deliberate pace, because I missed the wider exploration of the plantation world and the ambivalent figures like the freeman and the educated planter. The focus shrinks. The curtain comes down in a powerful scene, but I would have liked to see what happened to the slaves when there were no functional masters left -- if they could walk into the forest and start a new society, as indeed many of them did.
In a Q & A with Adriano Carvalho after the screening at VIFF 2017, we learned that the performers who played the plantation's old slaves were Quilombolas -- descendants of the escaped slaves who formed their own hidden villages in rural Brazil. The newly-arrived slaves, on the other hand, are played by African men who had never meant to work in Brazil -- they are refugees from the fighting in the Sahel who have diverted by policy quotas from settling in Europe. The same attention to old world versus new world cultures meant that some of the white actors were recruited from Portugal rather than Brazil, which probably creates a contrast in Portuguese dialects, which means another layer on the contrasts in presence between people adjusted to a climate and people who are new, people who can't imagine what will go wrong next and people who can, people descended from slaves and slave-owners and people whom slavery has not bitten as deep. These performers brought their own present day identities and challenges to the altar of a movie, by living as their roles for two months in a real plantation house. Given the texture of their performances I was less surprised than I was humbled to learn about the commitments that went into Vazante.