Timing is everything, which makes it unfortunate for “Sultry” that some of its themes dovetail with those in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s superior “Aquarius.” Marina Meliande’s film has a lot going for it: strong cinematography, a solid lead, and a worthy sense of indignation about the way the 2016 Rio Olympics was used to illegally force evictions and start redevelopments that lined the pockets of the wealthy. However, Meliande’s attempt to meld professional with non-pro actors is jarring, and the script, co-written with Felipe Bragança, doesn’t live up to its initial promise, notwithstanding an interesting dive into the fantastic. While it won’t generate much box office heat, “Sultry” will be an appreciated entry at Brazilian showcases.
The first few minutes contain some of the film’s most memorable images, including Ana (Marina Provenzzano) engulfed in white smoke after parts of Rio’s elevated highway are demolished, which then cuts to the communal pool on the grounds of the apartment building she lives in, where an exterminator pumps noxious fumes into the garden as kids romp in the water. These shorthand scenes nicely merge two of Meliande’s targets: gentrification with no consideration for the people who live in the areas being remodeled (though it’s doubtful anyone mourns the loss of the port’s carbuncle of an elevated highway), combined with the poisonous effects of what’s entering the atmosphere.
Ana, 32, is a lawyer committed to protecting an impoverished community from being evicted in the run-up to the Olympic “clean-up.” She’s also got housing problems of her own: her apartment complex was bought by a hotel chain, and residents are being given incentives to leave. Dona Rosa (Analu Prestes) refuses to sell, so Ana chooses to remain as well, in solidarity with her older neighbor. The hotel company sends architect Pedro (Pedro Gracindo) to assess the structure, causing some tension since he’ll be living there for three weeks, though he’s a friendly, sexy presence and Ana tries not to blame him for the policies of his company.
Between the tensions around her and a worse-than-usual heatwave, it’s not surprising that Ana has developed a rash, but she’s also losing energy and craving spoiled food. As the itchy rash spreads, acquiring a purple fungal tint, she becomes increasingly incapable of advocating for her clients or herself, and the municipality’s promises about holding off on evictions are as empty as the uninhabited apartments around her.
“Sultry” aims to combine exasperation over deep-seated corruption with environmental nightmare fantasy, yet the horror elements end up being far more interesting than documentary-like scenes of real people facing eviction that bleed into the narrative. Whenever Ana meets with community members about to be pushed out to make way for Olympic redevelopment, the film comes to a grinding halt. Meliande’s intentions in including the pain of actual citizens were undoubtedly genuine, but it forces the script into didactic overdrive, and clashing acting styles become ever more noticeable. Unlike “Aquarius,” the film fails to imbue the locations with a soul, so any emotional pull, especially regarding Ana’s building, is almost entirely lacking.
Had Meliande further developed the strikingly unexpected visuals of the opening scenes and provided them with equally arresting companions, the film would have hung together in a more satisfying way. As it stands, the lichen-like fungus, and the impressive way production designer Dina Salem Levy realizes this living, growing hazard, becomes the movie’s most memorable element. Using Ana’s rash as a nightmarish manifestation of the creeping crud of corruption is a nice idea, but trying to blend that with a form of social realism adds a list of ingredients that never really come together.