It’s become commonly recognized as critical hackwork to observe that a city acts as a character in a film, for the good reason that it’s almost never true. When sensuously and specifically captured on screen, however, a city can shape and alter the characters it contains. The ragged modernist maze of São Paulo serves exactly this purpose in “Shine Your Eyes,” a heady, enveloping narrative debut from Brazilian docmaker Matias Mariani: It’s shown as a place where immigrants come to lose themselves and find themselves in one fell swoop, planting new roots in its geometric concrete cracks. Ostensibly a missing-person drama, following a Nigerian visitor’s winding search for his estranged older brother, “Shine Your Eyes” morphs into something far more elusive and esoteric as the stakes of its central mystery shift.
Debuting earlier this year in Berlin’s Panorama sidebar, “Shine Your Eyes” might well have become a festival staple in a pandemic-free year. As things stand, however, it made enough of an impression in its curtailed big-screen journey to be scooped up by Netflix, where it will find the fittingly international audience it deserves from July 29. (A Brazilian-French co-production, the film skates through languages from Igbo to Hungarian.) It’s an impressive outcome for an unabashedly peculiar film that isn’t out to make things easy for its audience: Sparse but simple at the outset, “Shine Your Eyes” gets more opaque and ambiguous as it dips into magical realism and ornate philosophical musings. If the setup intrigues slightly more than the payoff, this is still a work of original, crystalline beauty, bursting with restless, refracted ideas.
The briefest of prologues, set in the Nigerian town of Nsukka in 1988, establishes an intense childhood bond between brothers Amadi and Ikenna, as they play complex games of make-believe involving spirits and guardian angels. 30 years later, their shared cosmic fixation is the only thing obliquely holding them together. Shirking the traditional duties of the first-born son to his family, Ikenna (Chukwudi Iwuji) has emigrated to Brazil, sending his parents news of respectable employment as a statistics professor at São Paulo University before dropping off the radar entirely. Following a year of radio silence, gentle-natured musician Amadi (O.C. Ukeje) is sent to São Paulo to search for him, with only a few scraps of information that turn out to be wholly false.
It soon becomes clear that Ikenna has never been a professor: Rather, his “statistics” work concerns developing a complex gambling algorithm that may or may not have larger existential applications. While Ikenna remains at large, Amadi encounters a patchwork of acquaintances who fill in details of his brother’s near-unrecognizable second life — including former lover Emilia (Indira Nascimento, thoroughly beguiling), with whom Amadi himself soon begins an unexpected affair, despite not a word of shared language. It isn’t long before his quest is derailed by the inexorable pull of an unknown but seductive city, and the ample opportunities it permits for escape and reinvention.
Six writers are credited with the film’s spare, supple script; one of them, Chika Anadu, wrote and directed the impressive 2013 festival hit “B for Boy,” which operated in a more conventional social-realist register. Not that “Shine Your Eyes” removes itself from tough realities. The hardscrabble existence of São Paulo’s sizable African community is shown through sharp, tangible details, while the general social and economic disrepair of Bolsonaro-era Brazil is palpable in the film’s exquisitely composed but grainily lived-in urban tableaux: You need more than a guardian angel to survive these streets.
Shooting in a cramped 4:3 ratio that emphasizes the density of this urban landscape, not to mention the daunting height of its under-occupied skyscrapers, Mariani and cinematographer Leo Bittencourt create a richly evocative tribute to the city that is nonetheless no beautified valentine. The thrusting, symmetrical forms of its severe architecture often dominate the frame, swamping the characters within it; elsewhere, roaring freeways intrude on intimate domestic spaces, with nary an inch of breathing space between them. It’s easy to see how newcomers wind up surrendering to the city’s overwhelming sound and fury. Amid its more teasing poetic ruminations, “Shine Your Eyes” works quite plainly as an allegory for the immigrant’s thorny courtship with a new home, and ensuing breakup with past lives.