Some historical films are true to facts but get the period all wrong, while others admit to being inspired by an individual but are more committed to capturing the flavor of a moment in time. The latter describes Marcelo Gomes’ frequently stirring if episodic treatment of 18th-century Brazilian independence fighter Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, commonly known as Tiradentes. Informed by history books yet never straightjacketed by bland reverence, Gomes finds truth in concepts and details, envisioning an antihero’s transformation from unthinking colonialist henchman to revolutionary. Lively camerawork and strong characters come together for several memorable scenes, while the empowering message is likely to attract further festival dates for “Joaquim” following its Berlin premiere.
The driving force behind all of Gomes’ films is complex personalities realizing their destiny, whether simply in personal terms or on a grander scale. His is a passionate yet nonjudgmental eye, and he knows that since it’s impossible to really get under the skin of a historical personage, it’s necessary to envision, in the most informed manner possible, what made that figure behave as described in texts.
The opening of “Joaquim” is a marvelously subtle way of saying just this, with a shot of a severed head resting on a tree stump in a downpour. The rain spots the lens as the camera’s vision blurs, beautifully conveying the notion that our vision too is distorted by the passing of time — though that doesn’t mean we can’t find the truth.
Second Lt. Joaquim (Julio Machado) is stationed at a Portuguese outpost where he captures gold smugglers. Like most men, his concerns revolve around advancement (which equals money), and sex. He has an uneasy relationship with his Portuguese colleagues, preferring the company of his half-Portuguese, half-native Brazilian right hand Januário (Rômulo Braga) and his African slave João (Welket Bungué). The person who really captures his attention though is his superior’s slave Preta (Isabél Zuaa), whom everyone calls “Blackie.” Despite her enslavement, Preta knows how to manipulate the power dynamic, hoping that Joaquim will be able to buy her from abusive owner Benedito (Marco Fugga).
To get the money needed, Joaquim agrees to a difficult expedition in search of new veins of gold, taking with him Januário, João, and Portuguese greenback Matias (Nuno Lopes), the latter exuding a colonialist air of superiority. Conceptually these scenes have the comforting familiarity of a Western (with inevitable parallels to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”), pitting disparate personalities with varying motivations against an uncomfortable, at times dangerous landscape.
Joaquim’s drive for gold turns obsessive, spurred by his desire for Preta; although he knew she escaped, he’s surprised to find her among a group of renegade slaves who kidnap him in the forest. Now rechristened Zua (“Black is a color,” she fiercely declares, reclaiming her individuality after years of being called Blackie), she performs a powerful dance that crystallizes her future as master of her own destiny. When he’s released, Joaquim goes back to the colonial settlement, where he’s influenced by the American Revolution and Enlightenment tracts declaring equality and liberty.
If that last part seems too pat as written, it doesn’t feel that way on screen. Joaquim’s development is never short of fascinating, largely because it feels so genuine: there’s no “road to Damascus” moment, just a growing frustration with European exploitation in both human and monetary form. Beside the impressive way Gomes reproduces the period, without refinement, what works best in “Joaquim” are scenes that highlight the power dynamic. The most striking example is a marvelous moment when Joaquim’s Indian guide Inhambupé (Karay Rya Pua) begins to sing in his language, joined by João in his own. Though mutually unintelligible, these two oppressed figures — their dignity temporarily masking their oppression — form a sort of duet, thereby proudly asserting their individuality against Portuguese domination.
By the film’s end, we don’t see Joaquim’s full transformation into revolutionary (Tiradentes was beheaded and quartered in 1792), but the manner in which he munches on a joint of meat seems to presage the energetic resistance to come. Not everything in “Joaquim” fully holds together, and at times it feels as if these noteworthy scenes are rather loosely strung together, yet the overall power sinks in.
Machado’s way of attacking his character fits with Joaquim’s growth from instinctual creature to driven rebel, but perhaps the real standout is the richly embodied figure of Preta-Zua, as played by Zuaa. Also deserving praise is Bungué, recently seen in “Body Electric”; with luck, other intelligent directors will continue to mine his nuance presence.
Pierre de Kerchove’s stunning anamorphic lensing takes full advantage of the natural surroundings, using shifting daylight and darkness to create a complex, realistic vision of the past. Camerawork is satisfyingly vibrant and active, like the characters themselves, reinforcing the vitality of the period while ensuring there’s no psychological or stylistic distance between us and them.