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BERLINALE 2020 Panorama

Review: Shine Your Eyes

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- BERLINALE 2020: Matias Mariani tells a tale that is out of Africa but is soaked in the magical-realist tradition of South American storytelling

Review: Shine Your Eyes
Ike Barry and OC Ukeje in Shine Your Eyes

Playing in the Panorama section of the 70th Berlin Film Festival, Brazilian director Matias Mariani's Shine Your Eyes [+see also:
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is an extraordinary, lyrical film about tradition, family and new beginnings, with a globe-trotting storyline that kicks off in Nsukka, Nigeria, in 1988 before settling in present-day São Paulo, Brazil. It is a tale that is out of Africa but is soaked in the magical-realist tradition of South American storytelling. This beautiful conflux of styles paired with an incredibly jazzy score is like being given the perfect wine to match a meal. It is one of the best films at the Berlinale this year.

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The action starts in Nsukka in 1988. A boy's face is shown upside down on the screen, talking directly to the audience, whom he asks if he should paint a smile on his forehead. When the camera pulls away, it reveals that he's talking to his older brother, sat on a bed above him. Their interaction is playful and loving. It's a perfect visual metaphor for an Igbo boy who will arrive in São Paulo in 2019, still with his mind upside down, and still looking for his elder brother to put a smile on his face.

The Igbo people have emerged as some of the most influential settlers in Brazil and have a strong influence in socio-political and cultural circles. The conduit to examining this community is Amadi (OC Ukeje), the grown-up version of the younger brother first seen in the initial image. He arrives in Brazil looking for his older brother Ikenna (Chukwudi Iwuji), who moved to São Paulo five years before but has been on radio silence for a year, even to his fiancée back home. Ikenna's behaviour goes against the traditions of the Igbos, as the first-born has a responsibility to look after the household after the death of the father. As Amadi goes on a search, we see a broken Brazil, buildings half-constructed or falling into disrepair – an attack on the policies of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and also government corruption. There is also a window given to the African immigrant community, which has its own diversity within it, and a love story blossoms, where physical attraction trumps the failure to share a common language. Amadi is a musician, and his profession is a cue for the soulful jazz score, which surreptitiously adds another political component to the film by highlighting how music from Africa has been co-opted and then re-mixed, re-emerging as “Brazilian” sounds.

Brazilian director Mariani's first foray into fiction filmmaking builds upon his 2014 documentary I Touched All Your Stuff, which looked at how much we can discover about someone only by looking at their digital life. In the only dud moment of Shine Your Eyes, Amadi sees and recognises his elder brother's laptop on the shelf in a store. Even Charles Dickens would have struggled to get away with such a moment of chance and coincidence, but apart from this, the script by Chika Anadu is excellent. From the information found on the computer, Amadi starts piecing together his brother’s movements and identifying his friends, and the film takes on the qualities of a detective story as Amadi starts meeting people he finds on the screen. He discovers that Ikenna has created a betting formula that has seemingly landed him in trouble. The search becomes more and more surreal, as questions of science versus religion, and the spirit versus the rational, come to the fore. The movie takes on a magical-realist quality before completely flipping the switch with an ambiguous ending that throws everything that is seemingly true into question – especially how far Ikenna has deviated from his Igbo roots.

Shine Your Eyes is a Brazilian-French production staged by Primo Filmes in co-production with MPM Film, Tabuleiro Filmes and SP Cine.

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