With as many stories as your typical Brazilian skyscraper, “High-Rise” brings auds into the elite penthouses overlooking the upwardly mobile cities of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife (the latter being helmer Gabriel Mascaro’s hometown). Melding the young director’s intellectual curiosity with an abstract eye for architecture, this enlightening albeit brief docu serves less as “Cribs”-style wealth worship than as a philosophical meditation on economic privilege, exploring how architecture adds a physical dimension to the separation between the country’s social classes. Pic seems suited for international television play as is, or eventually paired with another short for arthouse engagements.
A humorous — or at least vaguely absurd — undercurrent emerges as participants, ranging from a gay trust-fund couple to a free-spirited French art collector lured by the quaint primitivism she saw depicted in “Black Orpheus,” share their personal reasons for preferring a room at the top. Mascaro and editor Marcelo Pedroso need hardly interfere in order to reveal the cloistered worldview of their privileged subjects, and some opinions come across as oblivious enough to draw hisses from the crowd (sure to be more pronounced when the film screens in Brazil).
One wealthy man explains how a penthouse is like a personal island with an added vertical dimension, while his wife describes the nearby slums as “colorful little dollhouses.” From their lofty remove, the gunfire between rival gangs looks like fireworks at night, and though Mascaro never reveals that particular view, he does spend a fair amount of time gazing down on ant-sized sunbathers and pedestrians down below.
Like a tourist in these seldom-seen inner sanctums, Mascaro seizes the opportunity to record the dramatic vistas these penthouses afford. However, because he agreed not to link his subjects to their actual addresses, there is something vaguely disembodied about the material. As the pic weaves candid interviews together with perspectives collected from the elevators and rooftops of different buildings, the effect is like that of asking people about the joys of driving a sports car, but never actually showing the specific model they operate.
In formal terms, “High-Rise” feels loosely constructed, unfolding more according to whim than a rigorous structure befitting the rather academic nature of Mascaro’s underlying philosophy. Though not immune to amateurish mistakes (the camera jarringly reframes mid-interview on several occasions), much of the footage is staggering, best reflected in a vertiginous shot in which a crane lifts the camera to the top of a skyscraper under construction.