A young filmmaker’s personal odyssey in the Atlantic in the wake of his mother’s death forms the heart of the mesmerizing doc-meets-essay film, “Balaou.” Portuguese indie helmer Goncalo Tocha elegantly balances a first-person perspective with an adventurous documentarian’s curious eye toward the rest of the world — but the pic’s major impact, and its selling point for fests and buyers, is its overwhelming grandeur and sense of the poetic.
The film is the latest in a building movement of Ibero and Latin American indie filmmakers who use DV cameras to observe their subjects with bold, intuitivestrokes and unabashed artistry.
At first, “Balaou” seems to be about the simple yet heartfelt matter of Tocha coming to terms with his mom’s premature death and how the health of his beloved grand-aunt, Maria do Rosario Gouveia Filipe, has since declined. “I feel too old for this world,” Maria tells Tocha. And both feel Tocha’s mother died too soon.
The discovery of his mom’s diary detailing a trip to the Azores, as well as loved ones telling Tocha and his camera they sense he is “searching for something,” inspire him to take a trip aboard the sailboat Balaou, helmed by seafaring Gallic couple “Beru” (aka Hubert Gidon) and Florence Beaufrere.
What isn’t expected is the stunning violence and sense-distorting motion on a boat built for four. Tocha grows increasingly nauseous during the trip from the Azores to the Portuguese coast of Lisbon, but has the presence of mind to continue filming the verbose Beru and the more businesslike Beaufrere (who smoothly trade the captain’s position), as well as the ocean, the elements and the dynamics of movement itself.
The film emerges as a tone-poem rather than a standard adventure doc, and Tocha’s pondering of life-and-death matters against the backdrop of the churning Atlantic (at one point, his camera vertiginously flips upside down), abetted by Didio Pestana’s fascinating score, is certain to make viewers consider their own state of affairs. Final shot of the boat and sea in a moment of suspended animation is an indescribably beautiful and meditative coda.