At first glimpse it may seem there’s not much to Karim Ainouz’s “The Silver Cliff,” which follows a woman wandering around Rio de Janeiro after her husband leaves her. But think again: Guided by the textures of the city, this enormously empathetic helmer takes auds on an inner journey over 24 hours that, like tides on Copacabana Beach, surge and subside until a calmer spirit prevails. Though Ainouz’s pics are stylistically diverse, they all display a respect for their protags that suffuses spirit and form; critical support will be needed for the film to stand tall against splashier titles.
Waves can be both turbulent and calming: Djelma (Otto Jr.) comes out of the sea at night and walks back home through the city bustle. From the start, there’s a tactility to the visuals, be it the rolling waters or Djelma’s hairiness in contrast to the smooth body of wife Violeta (Alessandra Negrini). In the morning, she gets teen son Joao (Joao Vitor da Silva) ready for school, says goodbye to Djelma before he leaves on a short trip down south, and goes to the clinic where she works as a dentist.
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Later in the day, she gets a cruel phone message: Djelma has left her, and her world is turned upside down. In disbelief, Violeta careens through a wealth of emotions before deciding to hop a plane and find her husband. But she’s missed the last flight and returns to the city in a state of semi-shock, buffeted by the aggression of urban noise. Unwilling to go home, she checks into a cheap motel, and from there heads to a disco where she allows herself the catharsis of dancing.
Numerous pics feature disco scenes, yet precious few are memorable: By contrast, Ainouz crafts a soaring sequence by closely lensing Violeta’s energetic dancing to Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” Negrini superbly charts the shifting emotional sands, giving herself up to the beat with a sense of relief. Later that night, she heads to the beach, where she meets Bel (Gabi Pereira), a young girl temporarily living in a van with her father Nassir (Thiago Martins), easing Violeta into a new place of melancholy-tinged acceptance as dawn breaks.
It’s likely that “The Silver Cliff” is one of the few successful films based on a song, in this case Chico Buarque’s “Eye to Eye.” The lyrics read like a non-camp version of “I Will Survive,” with a woman telling the man who left her: “I want to see what it is you’ll do / When you understand just how well I’m doing without you.” The song only hints at a process, though of course the pic focuses on the transformation — a theme Ainouz treated with stunning originality in the film he co-helmed with Marcelo Gomes, “I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Home Because I Love You.”
The city and its changing moods play a vital role here, especially in the way urban chaos can be oppressive one moment and energizing the next. Rio’s special location on the beach further enriches her city aspects, and Ainouz beautifully conveys the kind of dialogue its residents have with the sea.
Negrini carries the picture, and she’s never been better onscreen, displaying a fearless naturalness that suggests the helmer instilled a sense of safety and respect, allowing her to open up so fully. Ace d.p. Mauro Pinheiro Jr. largely trains his camera on her yet avoids prurient voyeurism, and nocturnal visuals provide subdued tonalities that remain clear, varied and pleasing.