“Stories only exist when remembered” is the translation of “Historias que so existem quando lembradas,” a suitable and evocative title for a pic immersed in the passage of time. Tyro helmer Julia Murat brings a tactile sensibility and occasional striking visuals to her tale of a Brazilian village whose last 11 elderly inhabitants brush against the present when a young photographer suddenly appears. Though the focus is on one older woman (effectively played by Sonia Guedes) the film’s spirit is embodied by the whole town, which lingers in the memory. A healthy fest life awaits.
Routine is about all that’s left for Madalena (Guedes), a widow with a large house in a village forgotten by the world. Each day before dawn she makes bread, which she brings to the general store run by Antonio (Luiz Serra). They argue about how to place it in the near-empty shelves, have coffee together, and then she either returns home, where she may write a letter to her deceased husband, or she’ll tend flowers at the cemetery gate, unable to get to the tomb itself because the gates are always locked.
Unexpectedly, Rita (Lisa E. Favero) appears, a young photographer asking for a room for a few nights. Madalena reluctantly agrees, though she’s unwilling to have her routine interrupted. Rita is the embodiment of the outsider, indifferent to the people she comes in contact with (in fact, she’s rather rude) and only interested in the aesthetic elements she captures in her cameras.
Murat, daughter of helmer Lucia Murat, is too nuanced a writer-director to make this into a simple clash of wills, or a feel-good story of intergenerational friendship. Though never explicit, the pic is suffused with a sense of waiting, as the elderly inhabitants go through their unchangeable routines in patient expectation of approaching oblivion.
The town is on the same trajectory. There is are train tracks, though they’ve long been disused; the inhabitants get together for a communal meal after mass, but the interaction is limited, as if all that needs to be said was done long ago. The sense of abandonment gives the place a melancholy air without pushing the idea of a depressive sadness.
Rita’s character was likely a difficult one to develop in the concept stage: She can’t be too open or too closed, nor too emotional, and the initial diffidence can be jarring. Her photos are palimpsests that fade in the foreground as if all is in danger of slipping away even as we’re looking at them. An empowering portrait-sitting with Madalena is an understated spirit-lifter, though the unnecessary finale feels too much like the scripters were aiming for a bittersweet catharsis, and tries too hard to tie things up.
In the best scenes, lensing has an iconic power, recording the town and its inhabitants waiting for their end with a sense of regretful inevitability without any raging against “the dying of the light.” Lighting is effectively used naturally and sparingly, especially inside Madalena’s home, where her stubborn presence seems to just hold the darkness at bay.