Review: All the Dead Ones
- BERLINALE 2020: Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra team up for an ambitious period piece that resonates with their country's present social situation but falls short in execution
Brazilian filmmakers Caetano Gotardo (The Moving Creatures, Your Bones and Your Eyes) and Marco Dutra (Good Manners [+see also:
film profile], Hard Labour) have collaborated before, but now, for the first time, they have co-directed a feature film, All the Dead Ones [+see also:
film profile], which has just world-premiered in the 70th Berlinale's competition. A complex and rich period piece set in São Paulo at the end of the 19th century, the pic combines many historical, social and religious topics to mixed results.
With slavery abolished some ten years before, this is also a period of huge economic growth in São Paulo, the country's biggest and most modern city. The opening segments of the film set the scene for a contrast between tradition and modernity, just one of the complicated dualities that the directors address. In the first and certainly most poetic sequence, we see an elderly, dark-skinned woman roasting coffee beans in the yard and singing a song about rain and deities. This is followed by a young, white woman playing ragtime music on a grand piano in a large room of a manor house, until she hears the front door open and swiftly switches to a classical composition.
This is Ana (Carolina Bianchi), the daughter of Isabel (Thaia Perez) and sister of nun Maria (Clarissa Kiste), who are just returning from the funeral of servant Josefina. The trio are all that remains of the once-powerful Soares coffee plantation empire, which now belongs to a corporation, but the family is still clinging on to their former glory, with the father still managing the plantation miles away.
The film focuses on women, and this goes for the other key family, the Nascimentos, which consists of the Soares' former servants Iná (Mawusi Tulani, the most vibrant and powerful presence in the picture) and Antônio (Rogério Brito), and their son João (Agyei Augusto). As a result of the changes, they have been separated for months, with the husband working in São Paulo, and the wife and son living in a rural commune with other former slaves. She is one of the many who were banished from the city for practising their African rituals.
But these rituals are exactly why Maria wants Iná to return. Isabel is old and ailing, and Ana is “nervous” – unstable, anxious and with a morbid obsession with dead things. The nun wants the former slave to perform a healing ritual for Isabel, which would ease Ana's nerves. In one of the most telling and humorous dialogues in the film, Maria insists the ritual can't be done “for real”; it has to be just “make-believe” for Ana's sake, as theirs is a Catholic house.
Race and class still very much go hand in hand in the society of the time – a mixed-race neighbour has a thing for Ana, but she bluntly blows him off. Of course, this goes for the Brazil of today as well, and Gotardo and Dutra link their film to the present through various means, including an anachronistic sound design and a jazzy score.
It seems that the co-directors were too ambitious in their attempt to address such a sprawling subject matter. They tangibly depict both the rigidness and sensuousness of respective key characters and their place in the changing world, while the mise-en-scène often feels overly theatrical, and the declamatory, expositional dialogues are more suited to television. The sudden cuts between temporally distant scenes are alternately confusing and refreshing, adding to the uneven viewing experience. Finally, it's a pity that Gotardo and Dutra haven't done more with one of the strongest scenes that is directly related to the film's title and has a chilling horror vibe – a genre both of them successfully explored in their earlier outings, especially Dutra in Good Manners.
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