Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Barren Lives opens on a battered landscape dominated by a single naked tree; by the end of the film the parched earth can’t even support dead grass. Nelson Pereira dos Santos has turned the drought-stricken northeast of Brazil into a dusty purgatory populated by listless cattle herders and hollow-eyed children, corrupt cops that torture you and then ask for directions, starving women ready to eat right out of a dog’s mouth. On the surface, the film evokes neorealism, but this is the husk of reality, hollowed out by the wind and turned brittle by the blasting sun. Santos is less interested in an objective view of poverty than a subjective experience of its indignities, with the deliberately spare sound design and liberal use of point-of-view shots continually undermining the documentary realism of the images. The director even occasionally dives into the perspective of Baleia, the beleaguered yet beloved dog accompanying the rootless Fabiano and his family, which only proves that the barrier between whimsical fable and miserablist drama is more porous than one would think.
“One day, we’ll become real people,” Vitoria, Fabiano’s wife, laments at the end of the film. “We can’t go on living like animals, hiding in the desert, can we?” Indeed, the characters live so far on the margins of society that they can barely walk in shoes, taxation seems like some sort of cosmic joke, and a leather bed is the sum of all wealth. By definition, these people are walking absurdities, outcasts eating their pet parrot in the bush (he didn’t talk anyway, the mother tells the quietly horrified children, in what could be construed as either excuse or threat). Heralded by the squeaking wheels of an old oxcart, Fabiano and family ooze out of the horizon like a vision, and they return to that same heatstroke haze at the end of the film. Supposedly they’re heading to the city to seek a better future, but what job prospects could possibly await an illiterate cattle herder? No, this is poverty as an endless cycle, an oxcart steadily grinding its axle into dust and shards, and turning still.