Film Review: Vazante

A visually romantic drama set on a Brazilian slave plantation, 'Vazante' pokes and probes at colonial culture and comes up with very little.
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Filmmaker Daniela Thomas’ historical drama Vazante, shot in stark black-and-white, is a beautifully crafted journey to an ugly time and place: 1821, on the estate of a Brazilian slave trader named António (Adriano Carvalho, in an admirably committed performance). The African slave trade and the institution of slavery persisted in Brazil until well past the U.S. Civil War, with millions of African slaves shipped to the nation’s shores, then dispersed to cattle ranches, plantations, and mines like the one that sits, emptied out, on António’s land.

As the film opens, he returns on horseback to the estate leading a caravan consisting of men from his “domesticated” workforce, and, in chains, a half dozen or so African tribesmen still disoriented from their recent journey across the Atlantic in the bottom of some trader’s vessel. António has arrived with the hope that adding manpower, and shifting from digging in the land to farming it, will save his dying estate.

Death is everywhere on António’s land. He learns upon his return that his wife, and the baby she was carrying, died in labor, leaving in his charge his wife’s mother, Doña Zizinha (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), an old woman addled of mind. Soon, Zizinha’s son, Bartholomeu (Roberto Audio), and his wife, Ondina (Sandra Corveloni), arrive with their two daughters. One of the girls, Maria Joaquina (Isadora Favero), would gladly become the lady of António’s house, but it’s the younger daughter, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), whom he chooses to make his wife, despite being warned by her father that the girl has yet to get her first period.

So, António waits to consummate his marriage, turning his lustful attentions towards Feliciana (Jai Baptista), one of his slaves, and his industrial efforts towards breaking in his new slaves, particularly the clear leader (Toumany Kouyaté) among them. The leader, as he’s listed in the credits, incites a mini-rebellion that fails, landing him cruel punishment and motivating António to hire a more committed slave driver, Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira), a black freed man, who is every bit as mean to the slaves as any of their white masters.

The script, by Thomas and Beto Amaral, allows the tribesman leader an indomitable spirit, conveyed powerfully in Kouyaté’s mostly silent performance, but his insistent, angry pleas presumably for his and his brothers’ freedom fall on ears that can’t understand his language. And writer-director Thomas follows through on a choice not to subtitle his speech, a decision that greatly diminishes the man’s voice. It’s accurate that António shouldn’t understand the foreign language, but why must the audience be deprived of identifying with the man’s position?

Ultimately, the movie pauses for glimpses at the tribesman and his brothers’ cause, but discards them without ever translating his words, considering his intellect, or giving him a name. He’s a symbol then, representative of countless others who wouldn’t be broken, but as a character he’s only half there.

And yet, the slow-paced film finds time for copious shots trailing Beatriz on her plaintive walks around the house and estate, her fingers sliding over banisters or caressing tall grasses. Photographed as if she were the girlish heroine in a romance novel, her raven tresses always flowing just so over pristine white nightgowns, she also is a symbol—of youth and possibility, in its purest feminine form. She is not, on the other hand, a very compelling character, as the film seems far more concerned with her eventual deflowering than with identifying what she wants, thinks or believes, and Nastas in her performance hints at no exceptional inner life.

Instead, the film generates suspense around the matter of the young wife’s virtue, while backgrounding her husband António’s use of Feliciana as a concubine. Feliciana, especially given Baptista’s vivid performance, would seem to have more to say, but the story sticks with Beatriz.

At first frightened at the sight of the dark-skinned slaves, and their singing and dancing around a bonfire, Beatriz comes to feel comforted in the company, and in the embrace, of a slave boy closer to her own age, Feliciana’s son, Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos). Like the tribesman leader, Virgilio, too, is treated as a symbol, less an actor in the plot than an accessory to it. Left to their own devices, the young black boy and white girl might find love and happiness, but confined to this barren land, trapped inside the wretched institution of slavery, there can be no hope for them, and only doom for Virgilio.

Perhaps Thomas means to excavate the doomed marriage between slavery and the New World, but so much of the story is weighted towards the colonial perspective that whatever purpose she intends feels lost. The movie’s one free black man is portrayed as the cruelest villain, who rides off without revealing much of himself, other than the fact that he most surely was the product of some vicious cruelty himself.

That’s a legacy that the film attempts to grapple with sincerely, but too often Thomas falls back on depicting these colonial times as some mere romantic tragedy, where the girls were innocent, the men were hard, the land was rough and human beings just happened to be enslaved.

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