A man is standing still, facing the camera. He wears a construction hat and a neon safety vest over a bulletproof one. It is nighttime, he’s shrouded in darkness. He closes his eyes as the camera slowly pans out, as if to better tune into his surroundings. The din around him suggests a natural scene, crickets drowning out all else. Only gradually do we begin to hear the sounds of machinery. As Justino (stoic newcomer Regis Myrupu) is lulled into sleep, a radio call brings him back into himself. It’s then we see he’s been standing in front of a shipping container, one of the many he’s tasked with patrolling during his shifts as a security guard at the Manaus cargo port.
This poignant opening moment sets up the tensions between nature and modernity, labor and rest, that structure Maya Da-Rin’s captivating debut fiction feature, “The Fever.”
Justino, a member of the indigenous Desana people, has been adrift since his wife died. With his daughter soon venturing out into Brasilia for med school, he’s finding it harder to stay tethered to a job and a life that has unmoored him from his own. The thrall of a life amid nature and away from the barren urbanity he’s surrounded by is, quite literally, making him sick. It’s not just a fever, he tells his daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto). It’s something else. A metaphysical ailment, perhaps. Maybe one tied to those whispers of a mysterious animal terrorizing their neighborhood in the outskirts of Manaus.
With its recursive structure mirroring Justino’s own monotonous days, “The Fever” languidly creates a portrait of a man immobilized by his own inaction. The way Justino is surveilled at work (his supervisor is well aware he’s been nodding off during his shifts and gently reminds him the company may be held liable for any workplace accidents) doesn’t bother him much. He’s unperturbed by such admonishments. He’s just as unbothered when seeing a doctor about his recurring fever, revealing his own wry and dry sense of humor. When asked what kind of food he eats, he’s quick to answer: “The kind you find in the supermarket.” Even his co-worker’s increasingly racist attempts at small talk (“There are lots of Indians around there. Real ones. With arrows and sticks.”) suggest a levelheaded, laconic demeanor.
It’s only when Da-Rin follows Justino to his home, where he’s chatty and gregarious in his native Tukano language, happily regaling his grandson with fables about monkeys in enchanted worlds, that you understand his reserved poise belies his lurking sadness. As a cog in a capitalist system that’s alienated him from what he most holds dear, Justino fears his physical symptoms may be more than a warning.
“The Fever” is awash in imagery and dialogue that make Justino’s story feel emblematic of these broader debates about the place (both literal and figurative) indigenous communities occupy in an ever-urbanizing modern-day Brazil. While Justino and his family share a meal at home, for instance, a news program updates them on recent developments on the mysterious animal attacks happening in their area: “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the attacks were done by dogs,” someone tells the TV anchor. “Exotic invading species can adapt so well to a new ecosystem that they dominate the environment and end up eliminating the native species.”
The argument that follows on the news program, which frames the attacks as a possible biodiversity crisis, is quickly reframed again by those at the table. Justino’s brother suggests it may well be “something else, but in the form of a dog,” explaining a different kind of cosmology that refuses to understand the world around them as merely what’s in front of their eyes. But even as “The Fever” pits Justino and his brother against Vanessa’s skepticism (and the objectivism of the unseen news anchors), Da-Rin adds more nuance to these dichotomies. In the eyes of his brother, for instance, Justino has “turned white,” letting his life be ruled by the rigidity of a workplace calendar that keeps him from visiting family and joining in on local festivities. Caught less at a crossroads than at an impasse, Justino’s inner journey leads him right back where he belongs.
In addition to its bold sound design, the film features striking work from DP Barbara Alvarez, whose embrace of dark, cloistered spaces that feel both expansive and claustrophobic, is here married with her ability (as with her work in 2015’s “The Second Mother” and 2016’s “Don’t Call Me Son”) to capture effortless family intimacies. But it is Myrupu’s beguiling performance what anchors this intimate and entrancing epic, a modern-day fable about the very concept of modernity and the promise of fabulation.