Marcelo Gomes makes an impressive if sober feature helming debut in “Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures,” set in Brazil’s desert-like sertao in 1942 as the country prepares to enter war against the Axis. The friendship that springs up between two young men, one German and the other Brazilian, is etched with a quiet delicacy that deepens to touch their souls. Film’s pared-down look has a stylish simplicity that should make it a contender for arthouse pickup, though auds will need to get into its minimalist rhythm.
Gomes, who co-scripted the successful “Madame Sata” with director Karim Ainouz and Sergio Machado (present at Cannes with his own feature bow, “Lower City”), has the least flashy, least attention-grabbing approach to directing of the trio. Here the focus is on slowly but surely building a portrait of two men urged on by a restless desire to experience life. Rather charmingly, the tale does have its roots in reality, since it was told to Gomes by his grandfather Ranulpho.
Handsome Johann (Peter Ketnath) drives his truck through the wilderness, giving lifts to locals as he goes. He fled Germany to escape the war and has been driving around the scorching outbacks of Brazil for months. When he reaches a town, he sets up a movie projector and shows his fascinated audience commercials for the revolutionary new medicine he’s peddling: aspirin. After the show, they flock to buy the stuff.
One day he gives a ride to sour, sharp-tongued Ranulpho, who offers to be Johann’s projectionist and assistant. At first their temperaments seem worlds apart. While Johann sleeps under the stars to open his mind and views his nomadic life as an interesting adventure, the Brazilian grumbles about what a miserable backwater he was born into. His only thought is to go to Rio.
A long drought has impoverished the area, forcing hordes of homeless refugees to head for plantations along the Amazon, which are producing rubber for the U.S. The world beyond Brazil looks equally bleak. The radio talks about the blood-drenched battlegrounds of Europe, and the war Johann has been trying to outrun begins catching up with him even in this remote hinterland.
While in a larger town, he is served notice that he must either return to Germany or surrender himself to a concentration camp in Sao Paulo. The film ends with his decision, which sends the characters out to chase down their individual destinies.
The self-possessed Ketnath, a stage and television actor, makes an eye-catching screen bow as a freedom-loving pacifist haunted by the prospect of killing and dying on a battlefield. Miguel, who also comes from the stage, brings a droll note of humor to the role of the pessimistic Ranulpho, a character who embodies the hard times Brazilians in the Northeast were living through, but also of their will to find personal happiness.
Tyro cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro creates a world of whited-out, over-exposed scenes that emphasize the heat and burning sun of the sertao, the region where Glauber Rocha shot his films. The scrubby desert, full of poisonous snakes and insects and vultures, plays a leading role in this leisurely paced story. Tomas Alves de Souza’s score blends in with plentiful Brazilian music from the ’30s and ’40s.