Plot: An Indigenrous-Black man from Brazil’s rural north struggles to earn acceptance in his community. When he is informed that he must take a wage cut at the milk factory he has long worked for, he finds refuge in an abandoned house.
João Paulo Miranda Maria’s debut feature is a perplexing, distanced and often frustrating film about how long-held racial stereotypes still remain alive in modern-day Brazil. Meant to be a slow burn, the film sadly never reaches its full potential and ends up as an incoherent, almost dialogue-free examination of key social issues but with almost no narrative focus.
The film centers on Cristovam (Antônio Pitanga), an Indigenous–Black man who now works in the south of Brazil, an area that is in better economic shape and always had better job prospects. One day, the milk factory he has long worked for informs him that an economic crisis is hitting the country and that he must come to terms with the fact that they can no longer keep paying him his regular wage. Exploiting the fact that Cristovam has nowhere else to go, they force him into accepting this – otherwise his pension will be severely impacted.
Outside the factory, life is no different for Cristovam who encounters hatred, racism and attacks from members of his community. He soon finds refuge in an abandoned old house in which he discovers elements of his past. But even in this abandoned house with no proper utilities, Cristovam still endures attacks from neighboring residents who simply do not want him to stay. He soon realizes that he can no longer remain passive and submissive and launches a defense that changes the remainder of his life forever.
Likely very difficult to decipher for international audiences unfamiliar with Brazilian folklore and folk tales, MEMORY HOUSE is sure to alienate mainstream and arthouse audiences outside Latin America. A slow-burn that overstays its welcome, it never truly clicks despite impressive technical credits, particularly the cinematography. While trying to draw parallels between Cristovam’s own struggles and larger issues that still exist in Brazil today, the film never manages to be as interesting as it thinks it is. Midway, it becomes difficult to root for Cristovam simply as the character ends up in a loop of repetitive scenes that never progress the narrative. And when the payoff comes at the end, it never truly achieves its desired impact simply because audience interest has not been sustained up to the final showdown.
A debut feature that is certainly far from being traditional, João Paulo Miranda Maria has created a film that may find some local success but needed more narrative clarity and characterization to welcome curious audiences interested in understanding the socio-political realities of Brazil at present. As Cristovam, Antônio Pitanga is convincing but underused as an ailing man who never truly finds a place where he belongs. Supporting performances are almost non-existent, as the film chooses to focus on Cristovam and his brief encounters with the local residents.
Verdict: Inaccessible, distant and underdeveloped, MEMORY HOUSE will struggle to click with audiences unfamiliar with Brazilian folklore and history. What could have been an illuminating film ends up as a frustrating, slow-burn that never hits its potential.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.