Like A Secret World (reviewed last week), Southwest (Sudoeste, 2012, dir. Eduardo Nunes) was a flawed film. But audiences are more likely to be forgiving of A Secret World’s flaws because the director was wise enough to keep it short. Audiences might be prepared to be mildly bored for an hour and a half, but over the two hour mark a film has to work hard to keep the audience engaged. At a screening of Southwest at Toulouse’s Cinélatino film festival earlier this month, at least six people walked out. This was in a city where audience attendance is surprisingly high for films that might be classed as difficult, and audience questions in Q&A’s with directors tend to demonstrate a great sensitivity to cinematic language.
That people should walk out of Sud-Oueste was a shame: it was clear from the beginning that it would be a slow film, but it was equally clear that the director had taken as much time over the film’s aesthetics as he was taking to tell the story. The film is in black and white, a little over-grainy, making some parts of the image a little ‘busy’ for my liking. But Nunes composes his shots with exquisite care, often incorporating unusual angles which emphasise diagonals. Most intriguing of all is the film’s format: wide screen, but very narrow from top to bottom, like a panoramic postcard.
When it comes to evoking texture and developing atmosphere, sound is more important than image in this film. It opens with the haunting, near-musical sound of a squeaky windmill, which for many viewers will inevitably evoke The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). Southwest is similar insofar as it takes place in an untamed, austere new world landscape: coastal Brazil, with its salt plantations and scrubland, continuously swept by a whistling wind and baked by the sun’s molten gaze. Unlike a western, the film focuses less on hardened male pioneers, more on women and children. The latter introduce a vulnerable element of softness, compassion and wonder, and they discover the more delicate aspects of this landscape: the soft sand, the lapping water, and the delicate shells that the ocean deposited before it receded.
I mention the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere first because it is the most reliable element in a film where the narrative sometimes falters. The story itself is a very strange one: a woman named Clarissa dies before giving birth to her child. The midwife is left alone with the body, and returns home with a baby. The story in the village, though, is that mother and child were buried together. The midwife lives in a hut on stilts in the middle of a lake, and is considered by the locals to be a witch. The next time the baby appears, she has grown into a little girl of about 10, who comes to shore alone. Yet no time appears to have passed, as Clarissa’s parents have just learned about her death. The little girl is strange: she is slim and delicate, and wears a white lace dress like the one her mother wore when she died. Initially, she barely speaks, and greets the villagers with a tiny smile hovering permanently around her mouth. Eventually she becomes more involved with Clarissa’s family, attempting to comfort her mother and little brother Joao.
The story is engaging insofar as it encourages the audience to figure out what is going on, relative to the little girl and the passage of time. As the midwife is nowhere to be seen after the baby has grown into a girl, has she somehow worked her magic on the baby, joining their two forms together, so that the baby has aged 10 years in a day? Or was the baby, who logically ought to have died along with her mother, granted a brief respite from death, so that she lives her entire life in the space of a day? (This seems the most likely explanation). Or was it not just a baby that the midwife brought back, but the spirit of Clarissa, who is given a day as a ghost to visit with her family? Towards the end of the film, the absence of further information or real developments means that the audience has little new information to add to their understanding of the film, and must merely passively watch as the film goes on just that bit too long. Still, the film’s outstanding visuals, its haunting atmosphere and the originality of its premise have twice earned it the FIPRESCI prize (at Rio de Janeiro in 2011, and at Cinélatino this year), marking out Southwest as a film worth watching in spite of its flaws.