After prestige television projects, director Luiz Fernando Carvalho makes an auspicious feature debut with “To the Left of the Father,” an angst-ridden drama of illicit desire adapted from Brazilian author Raduan Nassar’s prize-winning 1976 novel. Rich in aesthetic texture and cerebral gravitas — recalling Russian mystic Aleksandr Sokurov, especially in lensing style — pic makes a striking first impression that slowly palls across three turgid hours. Excessive, garrulous adherence to source material, unvarying mood and a near-complete lack of humor can’t obscure Carvalho’s obvious talent; but a need for editing and screenwriting assistance is just as clear. Fervent but eventually deadening effort would be twice as effective at half the length; as is, it merits extensive fest play yet won’t tempt even the most masochistic arthouse distribs offshore.
Set in 1940s Sao Paolo, tale opens with Andre (Selton Mello) writhing in bed. The cause may be furious masturbation, epileptic seizure or some thorny spiritual rapture — all states that, we soon learn, are relevant to and easily confused by the young protag.
He’s fled his family farm, holing up in a humble room. There Andre is found by elder brother Pedro (Leonardo Medeiros), who’s been dispatched to bring the errant black sheep back into the fold. Andre’s confession to his sib results in explanatory flashbacks, though we return to the boarding house present all too often throughout.
Principal reason for his flight is that oldest taboo: incestuous desire, which occurred after seeing beauteous sister Ana (Simone Spoladore in a virtually mute role) dance at a community celebration. Their consummated passion would only bring disaster within the farming clan’s strict Catholic environs, particularly given a father (Raul Cortez) whose idea of dinner conversation is a blood-and-thunder sermon. Later — much later, in screentime — Pedro hauls Andre back home. His other four sibs, adoring mother (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha) and even dour papa rejoice, being still oblivious to his trespasses. As for Ana, her own “devil-possessed” desires force themselves into the open at a second community dance.Despite its rather crude thematic conflation of lust, religious morality, paganistic undercurrents and family dysfunction — not to mention an old school perspective that casts women as the fleshly temptresses men must endlessly argue themselves away from — “To the Left of the Father” often works as a primordial Edenic tone poem. Moving from delicate, muted color to occasional B&W, Carvalho crafts imagery that’s both seductive and austere, overripe and stifling.
Like Sokurov, he heightens the metaphysical atmosphere via distorted closeups that register like the ecstatic/tortured faces of saints in Orthodox icons. The occasional release from interior demons — as in that first village dance — proves helmer can also imbue larger-scaled set pieces with dazzling resonance.
Audio mix is equally dense and evocative, with complex layering of nature sounds, classical excerpts (from such musical dreamers as Ravel and Arvo Part) and Marco Antonio Guimaraes’ keening original score.
Lead thesp Mello struggles to sustain a three-hour decathlon of hysteria and nonstop monologuing, excess of which pushes the film dangerously close to purple melodrama. Only other performer to get a word in edgewise, vet actor Cortez as the imposing patriarch, has to parry a late father-son philosophical debate that shoves yet more sickness-of-the-soul blather onto an already teetering pile.
Add to this windiness the murky underdevelopment of all other characters, the hero’s superstitiously regarded epilepsy, and even some extra credit incest riffs and by midpoint “At the Left” bears out dad’s warning that “Pretentious enlightenment is as damning as the darkness.”
That it never quite curdles into arthouse kitsch is a testament to Carvalho’s undeniable filmmaking artistry. He’s a poet, all right, but as this exquisitely crafted, mountainous mole hill reminds, even a good poet needs a good editor now and then.