Slow-moving, almost dreamlike Brazilian black-and-white film “Southwest” has the initial feel of a tropical Tarkovsky or a Bela Tarr movie with better weather. But though rookie scribe-helmer Eduardo Nunes’ technical approach to storytelling might be partly borrowed, he ensures that his tale of a girl whose entire life passes in a single day is also singular enough to captivate hard-to-please auteurist auds. With its extremely wide aspect ratio, richly detailed bichrome photography and two-hour-plus running time, adventurous fests are the logical venue for this effort, which deserves to be seen on the bigscreen.
Opening follows a mysterious old lady (vet Lea Garcia, “Black Orpheus”) who composedly makes her way to a dilapidated manse. The woman, later referred to as a “witch,” has come to help with the delivery of a baby, but by the time she arrives, the future mother has already died. Miraculously, the infant survives and grows up to become Clarice (played by Raquel Bonfante as a girl, Simone Spoladore as a young adult and Regina Bastos in old age).
Clarice is a special child, racing through her entire life in 24 hours, while for the characters around her, it is a day like any other. As a kid, she plays with her playmate, Joao (Victor Navega Motta), whose grieving mother, Luzia (Mariana Lima), has lost a daughter also called Clarice, though the connection between the stories is initially unclear.
Story unfolds in a picturesque village on a saltwater lake, where the only sustenance, besides fishing, comes from tending to the saltpans. Like the mineral that reveals itself only after the water evaporates in the blazing sun over time, Nunes and co-screenwriter Guilherme Sarmiento only slowly uncover what lies hidden beneath the surface of their film.
The rapid aging of Clarice is obviously symbolic and, taken together with the minutely choreographed, often long-take Steadicam sequences a la Tarr, the pic explores notions of time and the impossibility to ever grasp anything completely. This is reinforced by the almost absurd image width — aspect ratio is 3.66:1, much wider than the 2.40:1 ratio of regular ‘Scope — which makes it almost impossible to take everything in at once, suggesting that a wider world exists not only beyond but actually within the frame. (Besides lending the film a majestic horizontality, the ratio makes it pretty much unsuitable for smallscreen consumption.)
Nunes and ace lenser Mauro Pinheiro (“Linha de Passe”) shot the film in the Regiao dos Lagos or Lake Region in Rio de Janeiro state, in the Southeast. Since there is no Brazilian Southwest, the title works as a metaphor for an otherworldly space. Combined with the lack of a clearly defined time frame, “Southwest” plays like a magnificent black-and-white fable.
Emotionally, and, to an extent, visually (as far as the production and costume design can be pinned down) the pic seems set in something like the mid-1800s, with the vaguely Gothic undertones, focus on women and a flair for the exotic recalling the work of the Bronte sisters — though they would have been puzzled by Nunes’ reliance on images and time, rather than words and narrative, to explore his themes.