Cristovam sits, blank-faced but concentrating, as he’s lectured in the boss’s office.
He works in a dairy. They’re having to cut back. The country is in “crisis” and when we figure out that country is Brazil, we get it.
But the white boss is relating meaningless platitudes mixed with bad news in German. In this part of “The South,” you’re more likely to hear Bavarian beer hall music than sambas. The folks who run the Kainz dairy came from Germany, cling to their lederhosen and lord it over the natives.
“We came from Europe to bring innovation.” They “invested in many people here.” But Cristovam (Antonio Pitanga) needs to take a pay cut.
When we later see him stripping out of his anti-contamination suit, we can tell this 20 year veteran of the company, who moved to their headquarters plant in the South from a dairy in the north that they closed, is the only Black man in the workforce.
As the boss’s German words are translated, Cristovam expresses concern.
“As an old Black man, who would he get a better option?” the boss grouses to his secretary.
Still, when Cristovam walks home to his ancient shack in the woods, we can see his overhead is low. It’s just him and his little three-legged dog. Perhaps he’ll get by in his “Memory House.”
Co-writer and director João Paulo Miranda Maria serves up a limited-dialogue parable of racism, cultures clashing and the violence that ripples from that in this film. Using limited dialogue, just a handful of characters and behavior that ranges from intolerant to monstrous cruelty, he parks Traditional Brazil squarely in the path of outsiders-with-a-different-agenda Brazil. It’s not so much about “Why things are the way they are” as a more cautionary take on how bad they could get.
Cristovam dines in a local restaurant with Alpine decor and finds himself at a chilling “independence from those lazy, corrupt people from the north” rally, one hosted by a plump German-speaking dumpling who’d have been right at home in front of a crowd in the Fatherland in 1938. Cristovam is urged to sign the speaker’s petition.
Cristovam’s not kept out of the local beer hall, where the oompah music plays and the almost entirely-white clientele plays billiards and flirts with the Brazilian hustler Jenifer (Ana Flavia Cavalcanti). Old fashioned Cristovam questions her choices, to no avail. When he meets her mother (Aline Marta Maia) he’s on surer ground. He thinks.
But his simple life is constantly under threat. Some locals harass him, and cruel teens shoot his dog with their pellet gun. They return, relentlessly. They break into his shack, and older versions of this Hermann Goering division abroad curse and threaten him.
Something’s sure to snap. Eventually, Cristovam will go further than bringing his traditional antelope horn instrument to disrupt the beer barrel polkas. With masks and jungle tribe spears in his simple home, you just know somebody’s going to get hurt.
Director Maria and his co-writer Felipe Sholl conjure up a mystical, primitive world that Cristovam embraces through his animist Carnaval costumes and that horn.
The story isn’t so simplistic as to suggest him summoning ancient avenging gods to protect him. But with all the jaguar references and imagery, that’s certainly in his hero’s mind.
I could have done without the cause-effect “abused-becomes-an-abuser” “traditionalist” scene, and some story threads are left dangling, something a movie with so few incidents and so little dialogue can ill afford.
But “Memory House” has an understated power running through it that’s undeniable and unsettling. With so little that’s independent-minded coming out of Brazilian cinema these days, Maria has found a niche well worth exploring and schisms few others dare to talk about.
Rating: Unrated, violence, sex, nudity, profanity
Cast: Antonio Pitanga, Ana Flavia Cavalcanti, Aline Marta Maia, Sam Louwyck, Soren Hellerup
Credits: Directed by João Paulo Miranda Maria, scripted by João Paulo Miranda Maria and Felipe Sholl. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:34