Sensuous, dreamlike study of Brazil’s impoverished northeast corner is a deluxe, slow-paced treat for Brazilophiles and the ethnographically interested. Monochrome pic, which won awards at this year’s Berlin and Sundance fests, will be a tough sit for general auds, though, with its nonlinear plot, irreverent politics and overt and polymorphous religiosity consigning it to filmdom’s (and TV’s) esoteric outer reaches.
Lensed beautifully, in black-and-white tinted the color of green clay, “Landscapes of Memory” is a docu-like study of the dry, mystery-filled region known as the Sertao. Pic’s thin narrative centers on elderly couple who lead viewers on an enigmatic pilgrimage through the region and its difficult past. Maria (Maria Emilce Pinto) invites the local beates, or holy women, on a literal journey, while gnarly Antero (Antero Marques Araujo) tells stories of how he met his wife and cleared his arid land.
Their on-camera observations are mixed with archival photographs, staged reenactments of earlier times (including some fairly steamy encounters) and ongoing religious processions — along with more Christian symbolism than you could shake a cross at.
Subplot has slick urban politician (the perfectly named Fausto Wolfenbuttel) blowing through tiny, dust-blown towns in order to make ritual promises, drink heavily and go home. Pic makes it clear that this is a regular, and infuriating, occurrence. Helmer Jose Araujo doesn’t hammer politics home, and, indeed, some viewers might well want a bit more hammering. Series of fragments, taking place in different times and places (and often lensed with wide-angle distortion), yields less to casual viewers than it will to people who know something — or a lot — about Brazilian culture and history, not to mention Testaments Old and New.
Even so, individual segs work wonderfully on their own, particularly those with spicy music in the foreground. Best is set in a crowded marketplace, with a guitar-wielding troubadour offering wry, catchy commentary about local attitudes to the Dragon — that special combination of drought and corruption that locals have learned to live with (or have fled, in droves). Existing version, which benefits from smooth post-production in the U.S., is a rich experience for culture vultures, but if helmer would like others to see it, he could stand to strip his “Memory” down to essentials, with fewer elegiac, near-silent passages.