A young Brazilian girl slides into the world of prostitution in “Happy Desert,” a confidently directed but unsurprising tale from Paulo Caldas (“Perfumed Ball.”) Though the issues it tackles are hot — sexual tourism with underage girls, smuggling wild animals out of the country — the story struggles to spring to life and hold interest in its unremarkable main character. Pic’s preferred style of brutal, exaggerated closeups reinforces a documentary feel, which will probably make festival audiences happier than theatrical customers.
Opening is set in Brazil’s rough Northeast territory, a fascinating location in itself. Jessica (Nash Laila), a swollen-lipped 16-year-old with a blank expression, lives in the outbacks with her mother (Magdale Alves) and the latter’s lover, Biu (Servilio Holanda).
Unlit interiors drained of color convey the gloom of their meager existence. So do several well-chosen details, such as silent family meals of goat meat, and later of a pet armadillo who suddenly becomes lunch. The armadillo incident connects to a local backroom trade in protected animals, notably huge snakes, which adds some color but has no chance to develop into a serious expose of animal smuggling.
Jessica is abused by Biu in a painful, slam-bang rape scene shot in extreme closeups. She then morphs into an after-school hooker and soon drifts away to beach town Recife.
Caldas is most on-target in the film’s midsection, during which he offers a realistic peek at Jessica’s grungy life as a teenage prostitute. Sharing a tiny room with three other girls, she dreams of a better life with a man who loves her. In one affecting scene, she has a heart-to-heart with her suicidal roommate Pamela (the fine Hermila Guedes, who played a similar role in “Suely in the Sky”) about growing older and losing customers to fresher girls.
The turning point comes when Jessica meets a good-looking young German (Peter Ketnath, the long-haired star of “Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures”) who’s into drugs and seems like the answer to her dreams. This is pure conjecture, however, since throughout the film Laila maintains the same impenetrable look, making it hard to empathize with her or imagine her feelings.
Thanks to an unlikely plot development, the last 20 minutes shift to Berlin, where d.p. Paulo Jacinto dos Reis’ wobbly, handheld camera style gives way to sober, orderly lensing. This third location broadens the film’s scope to yet another metaphorical desert of the soul.
Jessica’s comment that “the German sun is as cold as a refrigerator light” got an appreciative laugh at the film’s Berlinale Panorama screening.
A rocking score by Fabio Trummer and Erastos Vasconcelos gives the simply framed shots a bit of rhythm.