A wound is reopened

My text appeared in the Collector’s Booklet, as part of the DVD (Music Box, 2018) of Daniela Thomas’s Vazante:

Vazante is a piercing portrait of the exploitation and suffering that mark slaveholding societies. The plot takes us to the early 19th century, on the eve of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. In the once-prosperous diamond-mining region deep in the province of Minas Gerais, we find a story of families undone, of domestic violence, and of an impossible love.

Through the interplay of light, shadow, and the meticulously sculpted grays that lie between them, with a precise soundscape and carefully chosen cast, Daniela Thomas’ film goes to the root of a community erected on patriarchal power. A wound is reopened. In the unequal relationships and clashes between White and Black, but also between Whites themselves, we are given to see the violence that still characterizes the territories of the African diaspora. And yet, in Vazante, there may be something unique to the Brazilian experience.

On the one hand, brutality is unavoidable. The house and its surroundings are shot through with a violence that strikes at those both near and far, in keeping with their status: new and old slaves, free workers, White and Black women, children, traders, and relatives. A network emerges around the blind spot of power, which emanates from above: the final word always comes from a master whose moods are controlled by no-one. The film registers this lack of control with an air of unpredictability that verges on the suffocating. Life itself is teetering on a tightrope, with no safety net below.

On the other hand, the master’s house and the slaves’ quarters are strangely close. One character in particular – the house slave – carries out the most terrible of roles as a mediator of the vicious relationship between the master and his slaves. As the midwife for the region, Feliciana, commandingly played by Jai Baptista, practices the delicate art of maintaining equilibrium between the desires of the master and the safety of her son. Like the arm of a fiendish scale, she exerts as much agency as possible in a straitened, dominated world, and can be seen as one of the key pieces in the interplay of power and pleasure in the film.

Vazante is a word pregnant with meaning in Portuguese: it is both that which leaks out and a plot of land which, once flooded, is now fertile. Dictionaries will tell you that it once meant the ebb tide. This broad array of senses seems to suggest that what we see onscreen is bound to return again and again, with the intractable force of the waters, but also carrying with it a question about whether the soil it leaves behind will truly be more fertile for all.

Perhaps best known for having co-directed Foreign Land (1995) with Walter Salles, and for having been the artistic co-director of the opening of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, here Daniela Thomas has directed a film that seems to leak, or seep, in all directions. In Brazil Vazante had a lively reception, ranging from the recognition of its technical and artistic merits to a fierce debate over the place of Black subjects in the representation of Brazilian history and postcolonial societies. The film, in short, rekindled a huge variety of discussions about the Afro-Brazilian legacy, the still near-negligible Black presence in cultural production, and racism in Brazil. These topics have taken on immense urgency over the past decade, always alongside discussions over the position of women in a society with slaveholding, patriarchal roots.

The myth of “racial democracy” was forged in Brazil, as if intimacy between Blacks and Whites could alleviate the violence and racism of everyday life. As it so happens, the affirmative policies that marked the 1990s in the United States have only been duly considered in the past two decades in Brazil, where the struggle against racism is still in its early stages. Beyond what the director could have imagined, Vazante loomed in the public debate as if it were the missing piece – crucial for some, insufficient for others – in a great historical reparation. As if cinema could express all of the manifold symptoms of a society marked by color and class discrimination.

In Vazante, the painstakingly constructed environments and precise photography are the result of a thorough study of the iconography of the 18thand 19thcenturies. Daniela Thomas herself entered college at a time when the history of slavery in Brazil was being revisited, with historians examining aspects of slaves’ everyday lives and questioning the notion that they had been robbed of their agency. We might say that the limited agency of slaves is one of the key themes of the film, in which silence emerges as a fully-fledged character.

In drawn-out takes that often linger on the gazes of both Blacks and Whites, the story unfurls even in the absence of speech. Threads are woven together even as the characters’ desires and fears remain unnamed, as is often the case in dreams – or in the best cinema. Children are very important for the film in this sense. Vazante is also a coming-of-age tale that scrutinizes the brutal passage from childhood to adult life as Beatriz, played by Luana Nastas, dives into a complex game of seduction which she does not fully control, and which stretches both into the plantation house and out toward the life throbbing around it. Female desire is yet another character in the film, and its silence is commanding.

Race and gender are the keys to the cipher here, which is also the product of careful work with the cast. Notably, many of the actors who play enslaved Africans are from the region where the scenes were shot, and belong to the quilombola communities – descended from settlements of runaway slaves – which are working to reinvent their Afro-Brazilian cultural roots on a daily basis. A variety of African languages are also carefully incorporated; the often-narrow openings for communication lay in enslaved people’s sharing languages of which their masters were ignorant. Moreover, the rich African linguistic universe that the film presents reveals that not all slaves were alike, bucking racist visions that might group them into a single bloc of dominated subjects. An entire variegated Black society grew up around the plantation house, developing its own codes and customs. On the one hand, the house slaves understood perfectly what was happening in the space of the White family; on the other, an other cultural universe was flourishing before the masters’ eyes, at once clear to them and utterly opaque. The more that the slaves took the reins in this game of opacity and transparency, the greater their meager chances of affirmation and survival.

Vazante also explores the great myth of Brazilian patriarchal society: miscegenation. In deconstructing the fable of a racially mixed and peaceful society, it reveals that rape and violence are at the foundations of that ethnic mixture. Paradoxically, that very mixture is stubbornly celebrated and enshrined in the grand clichés of tropical societies, supposedly so warm and welcoming.

Daniela Thomas’ film is also about the impossibility of redemption, and about the hell that seems poised to consume all, without exception. The desolation of the individual is patent in the landscapes that yawn out in sweeping takes and in shots that return insistently to the smallest details, dwelling on people’s faces. As these horizons open and close, our gaze is pulled from unbroken skylines, seemingly offering us something, to the internal dramas of characters who are often all the more expressive, the deeper their silence is.

Vazante is also a film about silence and the power it bears. That power is revealed at the moments when words take on greater force precisely because they have yet to be spoken – or, in some cases, even when they will never be uttered.

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