An indigenous teenager falls ill when he resists tribal duties and his destiny as a shaman in João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora’s ethnographically sincere “The Dead and the Others.” Handsomely shot on 16mm to draw out the region’s warm organic tones, the film is an admirable, often fascinating fictionalized portrait of the Krahô people of Brazil’s north-central state of Tocantins and their fight to preserve traditions too easily watered-down by contact with the outside world. A major problem however is that the directors, who don’t speak Krahô, had their nonprofessional performers improvise their lines, giving far more space to exposition than their amateur acting can bear. Less dialogue and greater reliance on conveying information visually would have distinguished “The Dead” from other indigenous fiction, though Un Certain Regard’s special jury prize ensures a modest festival life.
Fifteen-year-old Ihjãc (Henrique Ihjãc Krahô) hears his deceased father’s voice telling him he’s forgotten to organize his funerary feast, but the young man doesn’t want to finalize the traditional period of mourning, for to do so means cutting ties that link the living with the dead. Later, in the forest, he becomes unconscious, and in a dream state is told by a macaw that he’s destined to become a shaman. Not pleased by this unwanted news, Ihjãc develops pains which he decides can only be cured by white men in the nearest town of Itacajá, so against the counsel of his wife, Kôtô (Raene Kôtô Krahô), and other members of the tribe, he leaves the village of Pedra Branca for the second time in his life.
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In Itacajá, he’s told his aches are psychosomatic, and he’s allowed to remain for only a short period of time in the town’s communal Krahô home. Still, Ihjãc avoids returning home, for he knows that going back means taking up his destiny as well as saying goodbye to his father’s spirit. Salaviza (“Montanha”) and Nader Messora don’t demonize Itacajá — their insistence on naturalism means rejecting any dramatic twists of that sort — but it’s clearly a foreign place for Ihjãc, whose lethargy and lack of purpose there stand in contrast to his life in the village (even if he needs Kôtô’s prodding to complete certain chores).
The directors spent nine months living with the Krahô and do as good a job as possible in conveying the sense of a people who experience the physical and spiritual worlds in a more mystically holistic way than those from non-tribal communities. More than merely respectful, the film succeeds in showing a self-sufficient society aware of the outside world yet choosing to remain true to its traditions and distinct rhythm of life. Memories of a 1940 massacre remain current, but the tribe, at least as seen in the film, avoids victimhood by maintaining its cohesion. While not an anthropological document, “The Dead” provides insight into customs and beliefs: Especially fascinating is villagers’ attitude toward the dead, who are mourned for a limited period of time and then, in a sense, cut loose from memory in order not to weigh down the living.
Given the film’s rich visual attractions, it’s a pity Salaviza and Nader Messora don’t have more faith in what they’re able to convey nonverbally with the camera; long explanations aren’t the strong suits of people for whom the concept of performance is most likely alien, and the mechanical way in which the Krahô speak lies heavily upon the entire movie. Fortunately the texture and jeweled tones of the 16mm lensing, at times reminiscent of Gaugin’s warmer palette, bestow multiple rewards, and sound design further enriches sensory perceptions.