Aesthetically arresting if perhaps overly cryptic, “Obra” reps an accomplished feature debut for Brazilian writer-director Gregorio Graziosi, about a young Sao Paolo architect who makes a most disturbing discovery when an old building his family owned is torn down to make way for a new high-rise. Andre Siqueira Brandao’s widescreen black-and-white lensing alone would gain the pic currency on the fest circuit, and if the end result is neither fully satisfying nor very commercially viable, it nonetheless tags its principal collaborators as talents to watch.
Scion to a wealthy family of builders, Juan Carlos Ribeiro de Almeido Neto (Irandhir Santos) is expecting his first child with an English wife (Lola Peploe), who, a little too conveniently, is an archaeologist. In the rubble of a demolished building on which he’ll construct a gleaming new tower, workers find the remains of several unknown persons, the mass grave seemingly deliberately hidden all these years beneath the massive structure. As Juan Carlos’ grandfather owned the lot and originally built on it, this discovery suggests some very dark family secrets.
The script doesn’t spell it out, but the inference is that Grandpa — now an uncommunicative invalid — may have collaborated with the military dictatorship a half-century earlier to send political opponents to their death. Juan Carlos’ construction foreman (Julio Andrade) considers him guilty by association, while his father (Marku Ribas) seems eager for him to literally and figuratively bury the matter once again. But the junior architect couldn’t ignore the issue if he wanted to — his own body seems to be channeling its discomfort, in particular via back pain that escalates until he can scarcely walk or dress himself.
With its musique concrete soundtrack, long, mostly stationary shots and especially Brandao’s consistently striking images, “Obra” casts a textural spell that’s a bit dystopian-futuristic, a bit “Eraserhead.” It’s not overtly fantastical (though there is some eventual surreal imagery), but Sao Paolo is made to seem nearly as cold, alien and dehumanizing as the underground city in “THX-1138.” While the elliptical storytelling builds suspense to a point, the fadeout arguably leaves more questions dangling than is useful; at the Toronto screening attended, Brandao alluded to a difficult production process, and Ribas’ death last year might have forced unwanted script alterations.
Even if the narrative ultimately frustrates, “Obra” still rivets attention by sheer force of look and atmosphere alone. All tech and design contributions are high-grade on presumably slim means.