There are a host of important, even vital ideas behind “All the Dead Ones,” a hybrid period piece addressing Brazil’s unresolved legacy of slavery and the imprint it’s had on an all-too-often downplayed contemporary racism of malignant toxicity. Set largely in 1899, 11 years after the abolition of slavery but designed so modern São Paulo increasingly bleeds into the picture, the film’s worthy goals are hampered by an obviousness that favors exposition over subtlety: Having a character express her colonialist guilt by seeing the ghosts of dead slaves feels far too stale when presented with such Freudian hysteria. Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra, collaborating as directors for the first time, channel the artificiality of late Manoel de Oliveira but without the enticing mystery, hampered by an understandable earnestness that yearns for a more subtle approach. International prospects are uncertain at best.
It doesn’t help that the character one instantly bonds with dies after the first few minutes. Josefina (Alaíde Costa) is an old servant to the Soares family, an aristocratic coffee plantation clan whose waning power hasn’t affected their sense of entitlement. When Josefina’s no more, matriarch Isabel (Thaia Perez) bemoans the fact that there’s no longer anyone to wash her feet, let alone make a decent cup of java.
Isabel keeps a tight rein on daughter Ana (Carolina Bianchi), whose loosened hair and air of barely contained hysteria speak of both madness and a dangerously uncontrolled sexuality. Her sister Maria (Clarissa Kiste), a nun who’d prefer a cloistered existence, is concerned by Ana’s constant references to their former plantation, which the women left five years earlier with the understanding they’d only temporarily be in São Paulo.
The trio of white women is representative — everyone in the film is representative — of three different approaches that came with the loss of status as wealthy land and slave owners. Isabel simply refuses to live any other way, her reduction in circumstances resulting in painful psychosomatic ailments. Ana’s neuroses are less genteel, and she’s begun to imagine she sees some of their dead former slaves, not in a menacing way, just present. Maria’s response to their fall from grace was to enter the convent, where she’d prefer to remain permanently away from the world that betrayed her, were it not that she’s the sole family member with her head together. Hoping for some help, she journeys to see her father Baron Jorge (Luciano Chirolli) at their former plantation, now owned by rich Italians, but he’s not especially interested in shaking up a life with decreasing responsibilities.
With Josefina gone, the family needs household help so upper-class neighbor Romilda (frequent Oliveira actress Leonor Silveira) loans her servant Carolina (Andréa Marquee), who’s less than satisfactory. Meanwhile, Romilda’s nephew Eduardo (Thomás Aquino) is proposed as a suitable suitor for Ana’s hand; though carrying the “taint” of being mixed race, at least he’s willing to woo Isabel’s daughter, who’s not merely beyond the dew of youth but also demonstrably nuts. Eduardo naturally is a representative of another kind of figure: elegant, highly cultured and sensitive to the enchantment of poetry and music, he’s designed as a man trapped between the expectations of race and class, plus he’s had a same-sex affair that adds another label to a character already over-burdened with signifiers.
Ana begins to obsess on the need to find their former slave Iná (Mawusi Tulani), wife of Josefina’s grandson Antônio (Rogério Brito), believing she can fill the role of servant as well as work some Candomblé magic to heal Isabel. When Maria makes her unproductive trip to see her father, she also locates Iná, who’s suppressed her Angolan faith in recent years knowing that adherence to African religions will harm her ability to fit into the realities of a deeply divided post-slavery Brazil. Though unwilling to return to the Soares family circle, she agrees to briefly help Maria, largely because she hopes to find her missing husband. The ceremony she stages in their home in the city revives pride in her faith, and she stays in São Paulo with her young son João (Agyei Augusto), connecting with a community of co-religionists as she searches for Antônio.
In their similarly female-centric previous films, directors Caetano Gotardo (“The Moving Creatures”) and Marco Dutra (“Good Manners”) also used characters as stand-ins for societal ills, but with “All the Dead Ones,” they’ve added a hermeticism that blocks emotional involvement, not helped by the obviously calculated construction of each role. Even Antônio, a relatively minor figure, is made to stand for something when he becomes a street lighter, making him not just a symbol of modernity but also someone bringing light into the darkness. Unquestionably, the issues Gotardo and Dutra are grappling with deserve to have more light shone on them, especially the way the ruling class and the Church suppressed African spirituality, yet the film feels so predetermined that the message, never so urgent as now with the Bolsonaro government in power, is weakened.
Even the potentially interesting idea of gradually introducing elements of modern São Paulo feel somehow unremarkable. It’s first noticed in music of uncertain date that plays over some early conversations, then more as a building is glimpsed going up near the Soares home. Soon the sound of fireworks is heard (in the daytime), construction noises invade the house’s quiet interiors, a wall of graffiti is seen, and then finally the whole modern city is laid out before Iná and João as they picnic on a bluff. It’s an interesting conceit, yet like the characters themselves, so calculatedly designed to point out the continuity of racism and class divide in contemporary Brazil that it becomes yet another concept to identify and catalog in one’s head before moving on.
Visuals from the always welcome DP Hélène Louvart (“Invisible Life,” “Happy as Lazzaro”) are handsomely composed, keeping a tight rein on what can be seen outside the Soares mansion until gradually more and more is glimpsed as their world splinters and reality intrudes. The film is divided into chapters, which helps with the construction.