Film Review: ‘Absence’

Chico Teixeira’s follow-up to 'Alice’s House' is a sensitive, impressionistic yet underdeveloped drama of family absence.

Rio Film Festival Absence

A 15-year-old boy bereft of adult support plays parent to his alcoholic mom while attempting to cope with adolescent growing pains, including his sexuality, in “Absence.” Chico Teixeira’s follow-up to his well-received “Alice’s House” is a more impressionistic drama, less of family dysfunction than family absence, sensitively touching on its rudderless protag’s yearning for emotional guidance. However, underdeveloped scenes and hints of greater depth speak to likely production difficulties, and despite the strong themes, the pic struggles to fit the various pieces tightly together. A small Euro release, Brazilian showcases and the inevitable LGBT circuit will offer some traction.

The project first appeared at the 2012 Berlin co-production market under the title “The Santo Amaro Circus,” with Marcelo Gomes listed as one of four scripters. Gomes’ name still appeared in news stories after the film was relabeled “Absence” as late as March this year, when the pic was awarded Toulouse’s Films in Progress prize, securing promotion from Europa Distribution and the Intl. Confederation of Art Cinemas. Something happened between then and now, as Gomes no longer receives credit, and the detailed pressbook BossaNovaFilms issued while seeking co-production partners explores plot avenues only sketchily drawn in the print viewed.

Home life offers few comforts for Serginho (Matheus Fagundes): His dad (Kiko Marques) just left without leaving contact details, and mom Luzia (Gilda Nomacce) is drowning her bitterness in drink. She’s having difficulty earning enough by baking cakes for neighborhood events, and it’s Serginho who cleans up, looks after younger brother Mateus, and weathers Luzia’s drunken tirades.

Instead of going to school, he works with uncle Lazinho (Antonio Ravan) at the vegetable market, where his best friend is his deaf, slightly older peer, Mudinho (Thiago de Matos). Flirtatious Silvinha (Andreia Mayumi) encourages them both: There’s an implication that Serginho’s interest largely stems from his hunger to have someone notice him, so when Mudinho boasts of having bedded the girl, Serginho feels doubly betrayed.

Only two adults offer words of support: One is Ney (Irandhir Santos, “Obra”) an independent teacher to whom Serginho makes grocery deliveries. The other is Ivone (Francisca Gavilan), part of an itinerant circus troupe and the sole person genuinely happy to see him whenever he bikes to the outskirts of Sao Paulo to watch the show. These two relationships are the most interesting element of “Absence,” and yet they’re also the ones that seem to suffer most from probable scene deletions.

Did Ney privately tutor Serginho? It’s not clear. What’s certain is that the teacher is attracted to the boy, but Ney maintains a proper relationship, holding his desire in check. Serginho himself has a crush on the guy, making for a tense atmosphere; when the teen asks for a hug, Ney awkwardly complies, yet this mild breach of boundaries makes the teacher wary of encouraging all but the most basic association. Teixeira excels in these scenes, sensitively and sensibly acknowledging the attraction, and the two actors impress with their subtle shifts in body language and glances.

It’s likely this relationship was slightly more developed in earlier versions, just as Serginho’s original encounter with the circus must have existed in some script or other. At the start the boy’s nosebleeds, a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil, form a recurring element, but then they’re completely dropped, returning only toward the end. Also oddly half developed is the character of Formigao (Vinicius Zinn), a bullying, hyper-macho market worker whose bursts of testosterone feel untethered from some more integrated portrait.

Teixeira’s aim, to develop story and character out of glimpses of Serginho’s daily life, succeeds only fitfully, which is why a little more script development could have brought everything together without sabotaging the director’s method of painting a complete fresco with impressionistic vignettes. The satisfying ending  really the only one that could satisfy  makes up somewhat for the flaws but can’t remove nagging dissatisfactions, notwithstanding a well-developed core anchored by Serginho’s unexpressed yearning for even a modicum of adult support. Its absence, and young Fagundes’ nuanced interior performance, go a long way toward holding viewer sympathy. Lensing maintains an almost voyeuristic mood, in keeping with this examination of life via quotidian fragments.

Film Review: ‘Absence’

Reviewed at Rio de Janeiro Film Festival (Premiere Brazil competition), Sept. 28, 2014. Running time: <strong>88 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Ausencia”)

  • Production: (Brazil-Chile-France) An Imovision (in Brazil) release of a Sabesp presentation of a BossaNovaFilms, Wood Producciones, Cine-Sud Promotions, HBO Latin America Originals, Anhagabau Producoes production. Produced by Denise Gomes, Paula Cosenza, Lili Bandeira. Coproducers, Andres Wood, Patricio Perreira, Thierry Lenouvel.  
  • Crew: Directed by Chico Teixeira. Screenplay, Teixeira, Cesar Turim, Sabina Anzuategui. Camera (color, widescreen), Ivo Lopes de Araujo; editor, Vania Debs; music, Kassin; production designer, Marcos Pedroso; costume designer, Thais de Campos; sound (Dolby digital), Tide Borges, Lia Camargo.
  • With: Matheus Fagundes, Irandhir Santos, Gilda Nomacce, Thiago de Matos, Francisca Gavilan, Andreia Mayumi, Vinicius Zinn, Kiko Marques, Antonio Ravan. (Portuguese dialogue)