“Memory House” review: a gloomy diagnosis of contemporary Brazil

Violence – or rather the threat of violence – haunts every image of João Paulo Miranda Maria’s first feature film, “Memory House”. Set in an Austrian colony in southern Brazil, this baffling drama tells the story of a man so alienated from the world around him that the stench of death at work and the looming environment outside have him. dig. That is until her titular home kicks off a transformation that turns the study of Miranda Maria’s character into a folk tale for a country in crisis.

Cristovam (played by Antonio Pitanga, emblematic figure of Brazilian cinema Novo) spends his days working apathetically in a dairy factory. Displaced by the very company that employs him today, he comes from the North and does not find much in common with his German-speaking employers or his co-workers. At 81, Pitanga is an imposing presence on screen, bringing with him not only a wealth of cultural signifiers (he starred in Glauber Rocha’s very first film, “Barravento”), but his laconic demeanor evokes hidden depths. which are slowly withdrawn. . Engraved on his face are the features of a black man altered by a system that sees him only as a cog in a machine, a number on a ledger. His eyes register almost no emotion when his boss threatens his pension; his shoulders curl as he undresses, his colleagues as indifferent to his presence in the locker room as they are in the cafeteria. Her only safe space is her home, a secluded home that, during the course of the film, turns out to be more than it looks. Cristovam begins the film as a sleepwalker too resigned to sleep, but the thrill of “Memory House” sees him slowly waking up.

This is where the film’s original Portuguese title seems all the more appropriate. Unlike “Memory House”, which gives the impression that Cristovam is trapped in a Gothic novel, “La casa de antiguidades” (literally “house of antiques”) situates his home as a place where objects and their associated stories have been. thrown away. Yet there is also a sense of conservation that shines through in this original title; everything that is old cannot be restored; anything that has been forgotten cannot be recovered.

As Cristovam finds himself rummaging through new objects popping up out of nowhere at home, he delves deeper into his past (and that of his own country). Where the world of dairy company Kainz is awash in antiseptic whites and silvers – the factory looks like a futuristic vision straight out of the ’70s – Cristovam’s house soon pushes it into more earthy territory, ultimately leaving it behind. literally assume the role of a boiadeiro (or Brazilian cowboy), with a matching bull-shaped folk mask.

As incongruous as this image may seem, Miranda Maria treats Cristovam’s carnival trick with the requisite reverence, if not threat. Because this popular figure ends up serving as a metaphorical rebuke to the immaculate and authoritarian order that Kainz wants to maintain: Cristovam can seem simply indifferent to the obligatory meetings where his bosses outline their plan to separate themselves from the rest of Brazil and thus leave their regions more ” backward ‘behind, their populist rhetoric mingling perfectly with disturbing conservative views, but as he is forced to face his discomfort with the life he leads, it is clear that there is a seething anger rising up to decades.

What is most remarkable about “Memory House” is not only its daring but its beauty. Despite trafficking in pressing social and economic concerns, the film has a visceral sensibility that finds both poetry and politics in the simplest of images. It’s not just Cristovam’s bull mask (which evokes so much culture and history in its iconicity). It’s a photo of a cow bleeding after being slaughtered, reflected on Cristovam’s protective gear at the factory. This is a photo of a woman seen from behind, standing at the pool table in the local bar, her wide stance making her an intimidating presence that is nonetheless the object of everyone’s lustful gaze. . It’s the photo of a pale young boy pointing his rifle at the camera, his t-shirt showing his allegiance to a separatist state, who looks at us with disdain and curiosity – and perhaps even with fear.

These are settings filled with complex ideas – about capitalism’s treatment of its workers like disposable cattle, about agency of women in sexist environments where their every move is controlled, about the racial disparities etched through it. class and geography that are perpetuated by violence – but they pack a punch because of their simplicity. Focused on by Sebastián Lelio’s frequent collaborator, Benjamín Echazarreta (“A Fantastic Woman”, “Gloria”), “Memory House” crackles with images and long simmered sequences (many of them wordless, reinforced by the eerie score by Nicolas Becker) who get his message across without ever needing to spell it out.

With its supernatural flourishes and ruthless vision of a dystopian yet nostalgic Brazil, Miranda Maria’s feature debut is an impressive calling card. “Memory House” is above all a fable about lost identities and cultural artefacts in need of recovery, which doubles as a thrilling and disturbing adventure designed to shake national and international audiences with equal verve.

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