Portuguese filmmaker Hugo Vieira da Silva makes a bold transition from doc shorts to “Body Rice,” a debut feature that skirts the edges of narrative and palpably conveys the drift and anomie of young Germans sent to an “alternative” community in southern Portugal. Local January opening spawned a public debate over the pic, and wide fest embrace (including prizes in Locarno and Mexico City) will lead to further notoriety and possible arthouse distrib buys.
Vieira da Silva smoothly joins the esteemed company of other young Iberoamerican helmers like Lisandro Alonso (“Los Muertos”), Albert Serra (“Honor de Cavalleria”) and Paz Encina (“Paraguayan Hammock”), interested more in image and sound than psychology and dramatics.
Cast of pro German and Portuguese thesps is asked to work largely without words — the nearly two-hour film contains less than 10 minutes of spoken dialogue, much of that in brief fragments — and let their bodies do the talking. But the intensely observant manner in which the final results are put onscreen commands similarly intense involvement from viewers primed for a kind of “silent” cinema with sound.
Pre-credits passage set during the first Gulf War in what may be a Lisbon hotel shows Julia (Alice Dwyer), looking every bit the “bad girl,” observing the routines of housekeepers. Credits section is yet another isolated chunk of action, this time in grainy black-and-white, showing wild Berlin youth before the Wall fell. (Vieira da Silva culled footage from Christoph Doering’s experimental 1979 feature, “3302.”) By the time dissolute teen Katrin (Sylta Fee Wegmann) arrives in the lonely Alentejo area south of Lisbon, a pattern of youth in search of meaning — or perhaps tired of the search — has been established.
Characters are never identified on camera, but focus on Katrin’s every move places her in the foreground of Vieira da Silva’s compositions and beautifully choreographed moving shots, with Julia — already well ensconced in the strange German-run community — as her pal.
Initially devised as a doc, “Body Rice” is based on considerable research and firsthand observation of similar experimental camps designed to push wayward German youth toward more responsible behavior. But with Katrin as aud’s eyes and ears, it’s clear that this group living arrangement has become something closer to a long vacation from reality, punctuated by all-day, all-night raves set to techno music.
Pic enforces firm suspension of judgment toward the lifestyles onscreen and absolute denial of the psychological or social purposes underlying the place itself. Rather, pic develops as the characters watch and/or rub up against one another — whether it’s Katrin getting to know ne’er-do-well teen Pedro (Luis Guerra) or middle-aged epileptic Joaquim (Pedro Hestnes) showing her some empathy and suggesting he may want more. Even a shot that could have been just a conventionally pretty moment — Julia watching a nude Katrin wade the local lake — here explodes with unstated sexual tension.
Pic easily alternates between passages of pure play (kids gleefully playing in a paradise of their own making, Katrin enjoying a dancing robot)and absolute gravity (Dieter beating his dog, a drowned unidentified person being retrieved from the lake). Appropriately, if frustratingly for some auds, nothing is resolved for members of a generation sated with the “doom-and-void” music of Joy Division, X-Mal Deutschland and Einsturzende Neubauten, which fills the soundtrack with rare sonic power.
Highly disciplined perfs belie the characters’ generally fatigued air, with actors operating not unlike Robert Bresson’s actor “models.” Vieira da Silva finds striking collaborators for his total-cinema effect in lenser Paulo Ares, editor Paulo MilHomens and the sound team of Pedro Melo, Gerard Rousseau and Elsa Ferreira.