Chicago-based Music Box Films has a knack for cherry-picking impressive independent, foreign fare that’s earned acclaim on the international festival circuit and bringing it to discerning American audiences. It worked so well for them in 2015 that they won an Oscar for their part in bringing Ida to audiences stateside.
Vazante, the solo directorial debut from Brazilian Daniela Thomas, won’t repeat that accomplishment this year (it’s not nominated), but it does keep up Music Box Films’ track record of plucking diamonds out of the independent film rough, polishing them up and introducing them to audiences. This moody period piece—like Ida, it’s in black and white—is everything those uninitiated to foreign films may scoff at: its limited, subtitled dialogue, its pensive framing, its priority on emotion over narrative.
But to skip this one would be a shame, as the film’s weight is never a burden; instead, the seemingly obscure time and place—a farm in 1820s colonial Brazil where the slaves outnumber the residents of the house—ultimately creates a startlingly timely sense of familiarity.
Antoni0 (Adriano Carvalho) returns to the farm after a time away, only to discover that his beloved wife has died, along with their newborn, in childbirth. Beset by grief, he struggles through his grief, unable to re-establish his place on the plantation where he once lorded over the mini-society of house and field slaves. His wife’s extended family lives in the main house with him, and eventually the time comes for Antonio to marry again; he chooses his wife’s young niece, (she has not even begun menstruating, we learn).
Beatriz (Luana Nastas) quickly becomes the sun around which the rest of the plantation revolves, if only because of her youthful, amenable nature as the new lady of the house. But she is still a child, and she doesn’t understand the almost business-like terms of a marriage; she knows only desire, and it’s one of the young slaves with whom she forms a charged, if innocent, bond. As Antonio assumes life is getting back to normal, finally moving on from his grief, the truth about Beatriz’s relationship with Virgílio (Vinicius Dos Anjos) comes to light, and the betrayal sparks a violent response.
Thomas’s film, which she co-wrote with Beto Amaral, is described as inhabiting “the intersection of feminism, colonialism, and race,” and it’s just those themes that make the film, despite being set a world away nearly two centuries ago, as relevant as ever. The various interpersonal dynamics at play, though manifested quietly, manage to evoke modern conflicts nearly effortlessly, and in this way the film succeeds as a meaningful journey onto the plantation. Slave and master; husband and wife; mother and daughter; young lovers…all are as familiar as they are foreign.
Vazante opens at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on Friday, February 2.