Connecting seven separate vignettes within one feature-long take (a la “Russian Ark”), makes for an impressive stunt but weak drama in “Still Orangutans,” a drive-by portrait of Brazilian life adapted from a collection of short stories by Paulo Scott. In tracking an assorted mix of characters through the rails, streets and private residences of Porte Alegre, director Gustavo Spolidoro creates a lively survey of 21st-century humanity, but never settles long enough on any individual to support a meaningful connection. And though the single-shot gimmick should set pic apart on the fest circuit, paying auds will likely require something more substantial.
The journey begins quietly enough on the morning train, the camera turning its attention from the city rushing by outside to a young Japanese couple asleep on their commute. The man stirs, opens his eyes and attempts to rouse his companion, only to discover she has died with her head on his shoulder. Such a scene packs enough intrigue to have jumpstarted a Hitchcock thriller, but here, the man agonizes for a moment and then goes on with his day, exiting the train and passing the narrative on to the next character.
A voyeur’s paradise, pic proceeds to elbow its way into intimate encounters between all manner of characters: A drunken Santa interrupts two lesbians kissing on the bus, a randy couple celebrate their latest tryst by toasting one another with bottles of fancy perfume, a singing teacher interrupts an otherwise innocent quinceanera to steal the birthday girl away from her startled family — any of which would make intriguing first acts in a fully developed story.
What “Still Orangutans” has going for it is sheer momentum, as Spolidoro (who scripted with Gibran Dipp) manages to embrace attention-deficit storytelling without the crutch of MTV-style editing. His camera becomes the unifying thread between stories, democratically interested in every character it encounters and yet not captivated enough to follow any of them through to a proper resolution.
Having practiced the single-shot technique in several short films, Spolidoro orchestrates the diverse range of stories so that there is always activity within the frame. Midway through the film, the camera enters an apartment building and spends roughly an hour moving between rooms while daylight gives way to night outside, giving the illusion that the film itself has spanned an entire day. The locations themselves, like the actors, tend toward the unexceptional. Spolidoro finds eccentricity among the average, focusing on everyday characters and mundane dialogue (including a running analysis of the slang word “tri”). A young car valet resurfaces between scenes, loosely connecting episodes otherwise linked only by proximity.
The HD camera not only enables the crew to shoot without interruption but also painlessly adjusts to various lighting conditions (with in-camera tricks used to distinguish an impressive dream sequence). Spolidoro polishes the experience with additional sound and music in the final mix, though he relies on live bands and booming stereo systems to supply diegetic score whenever possible.