Solid, sympathetic filmmaking with a terrific opening, a powerful closer and good but not extraordinary stuff in between marks “BirdWatchers,” helmer Marco Bechis’ ode to Indian rights in Brazil. Largely cast with Guarani natives whose fine thesping talents belie their inexperience, pic looks great, but emotional involvement falters in the midsection, and some subtlety in scripting the baddies would have allowed the film to retain its proper sympathies while offering more nuance. Though not as strong as Bechis’ previous two features, “BirdWatchers” should see decent Euro arthouse play given its PC subject, with possibly a very limited Stateside run.
Bechis is especially keen on delimiting what does and doesn’t belong, what has a place on the land and what (and who) doesn’t. His opening nicely upends expectation, as an overhead shot of Brazil’s central Mato Grosso do Sul forest leads to a river where motoring tourists glide past naked, painted Indians, staring with a mild sense of threat from the shore. Once the tourists pass, the Indians collect their wages for providing tourist thrills.
The Indians live on an official government reservation, cut off from ancestral territory. Osvaldo (Abrisio da Silva Pedro) and his friend Ireneu (Ademilson Concianza Verga) discover the hanging bodies of a couple young tribeswomen (auds unaware of the suicide epidemic coursing through Guarani ranks may find the motivation here unclear).
Fed up with their officially imposed financial and spiritual impoverishment, tribal leader Nadio (Ambrosio Vilhalva) organizes a squat on former Guarani property owned by deeply unsympathetic farmer Moreira (Leonardo Medeiros) and his bitchy wife (Chiara Caselli). Naturally, tensions escalate, even within the tribe, thanks to the alcoholic Nadio’s compromised leadership.
Pic’s emotional heart is Osvaldo, recently subject to visionary dreams. Bechis signals Osvaldo’s sense of being haunted byusing an encircling p.o.v. camera, a horror-movie device that does little to promote a sense of dread.
Far more effective are the frequent contrasts: Moreira’s house is decorated with Indian artefacts, yet his bigotry is undisguised. There’s a great shot of the Indians going to the river to get the water they need, while the farmer’s bikini-clad daughter (Fabiane Pereira da Silva) and her friend just go wading.
However, pic’s narrative trajectory is too inevitable to leave a deep mark, except for the very end — Bechis’ films are always notable for their punch-in-the-gut finales. Though auds will be swept up by its defiant cry of optimism, few will believe that such hopefulness is remotely sustainable.
Bechis spent considerable time rehearsing his performers, and it shows in their naturalness and ease before the camera. Especially praiseworthy is Alicelia Batista Cabreira as Osvaldo’s strong, playful mother, who has a firmer understanding of the tribe’s needs than the menfolk do.
Visuals are often striking, underlining the contrast between the artificially cleared fields and the naturally forested riverbanks. Always an idiosyncratic employer of music, Bechis beautifully inserts motets by Domenico Zipoli, a Jesuit composer who worked with the Guarani in the early 18th century.