Thursday, April 02, 2020

250. Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin’s debut feature film “A Febre” (The Fever) (2019) in Portuguese language: Promising debut, treading the path of filmmaking taken by Portuguese director Pedro Costa

Two films made in 2019 mark the resurgence of Brazilian cinema: Dornelles’ and Filho’s joint effort Bacurau (a Cannes film festival winner) and debutant Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (a Chicago international film festival winner).  The following citation for the Chicago win is a good encapsulation of the merits of the second film, The Fever:

""The Silver Hugo for Best Director goes to Maya Da-Rin for her debut fiction feature The Fever. The film drifts between dream and reality, portraying with both tenderness and precision the world of an indigenous father and daughter in the north of Brazil. It takes us into the family and their hearts, but never forgets the importance of the political context."  Citation for the award from the Chicago International film Festival

Justino (Regis Myrupu), a denizen of the Amazon rainforest,
chooses to work as a security guard
in Manaus, where instead of trees,
he is surrounded by steel containers shipping goods 

Director Maya Da-Rin was into ethnographic documentary filmmaking in Brazil before she decided to make her first fictional feature film The Fever. Ms Da-Rin has had sufficient interactions with the indigenous native tribes of Brazil while making her ethnographic documentaries that preceded this feature film. Those interactions gave her the idea to write a script for a feature fiction film focussing on the migration of the forest dwelling tribes to nearby cities for the sake of jobs, education and healthcare. One of Da-Rin’s two co-scriptwriters is a full time anthropologist Pedro Cesarino. The Fever is tale of Justino (Regis Myrupu), a Desana tribal who comes to the city of Manaus on the banks of the Amazon River, in the middle of the rain forest, to work as a guard at a river port where containers are berthed before or after being transported across oceans. Manaus has evolved as a major duty free zone port city in Brazil.

The genesis and the creation of Da-Rin’s film are very similar to Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela. another 2019 film, this time from Portugal. Both films are distinguished by their original screenplays developed by their respective directors after discussing with people about their own experiences that ultimately get projected so realistically in the films. Both films are in Portuguese language: one made in Brazil, the other in Portugal. Both films mainly rely on non-professional actors who incidentally have been rewarded internationally for their performances. Both films have most sequences shot at night time with an obvious absence of natural light. Both films were major winners at the 2019 Locarno film festival in Switzerland. The two films underscore the effectiveness of directors to conceive of films by talking to people and developing their films from ideas that emerge from real conversations with people living on the margins of contemporary society,

Justino with his daughter, who aspires
to be a doctor

The fever in the film relates to a realistic medical condition that affects Justino, the guard working in Manaus. Medical tests conducted do not reveal any known disease. Justino is a widower and a Christian (most Desana tribals are apparently Christians)  living with his daughter, who is studying medicine and a recent recipient of a scholarship for further medical studies in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, to become a  medical doctor. The scholarship means a great deal for the young lady but this development hurts her father as he realizes that he will be deprived of her company in Manaus for the next 5 years.  The fever is perhaps also linked to Justino’s brother’s social visit to Manaus making both brothers recall their early lives as happy hunters in the Amazonian rain forest, content hunting for fresh food in the forest rather than shop for food in the supermarkets. Justino’s brother wants Justino to return to the forests but Justino does not seem to agree, claiming that his employers won’t let go of him and even has a plastic smile when says he “will be fine” after his daughter departs for Brasilia.

Da-Rin’s film explores at a secondary level the true relationship between the employer and the employee, Justino. Even though he has been an ideal worker for a long while, the Human Resource department summons him to state that he could be fired without compensation as he has been found dozing at work. The film explores racism, too.  A greenhorn guard joins Justino’s shift and decides to call him “Indio” rather than Justino. It is this work scenario that Justino describes as one where “his employer won’t let him go.”

Justino (extreme right) with his brother
and family enjoying food from the rainforest

At a third level, there is the psychological beckoning of Justino by the rain forest and its fauna. The food that Justino’s brother brings with him to Manaus attracts Justino’s taste buds by its taste, encouraging him to consider returning to the forest. The strange sounds of fauna heard on the forest edges of Manaus city at night seems to communicate with Justino. But the viewer is never shown the mysterious animal  by the director.  A section of the Manaus population alleges that the animal killed a pig. It is possibly the same animal that made a hole in the fence of the port’s facilities that Justino meticulously guards. The mysterious animal also seems to be trying to connect with Justino.

The fever is a metaphor transcending medical knowledge in this film. It suggests a connection between animals, spirits and humans that the rainforest tribes believe in and the fever seems to attract Justino back to the forest. Whether Justino does return or whether he dreams of his return is for the viewer to figure out.  The film ends with a song sung on the soundtrack that ambiguously states: “This is why I have come to talk to you. Like our ancestors, we must live with strength and courage

At the Locarno film festival, the film’s director Da-Rin indicated her antipathy towards the Bolsonaro regime that is cutting down the rainforests to encourage industry and corporate farming, at the cost of precious natural genetic resources and disrupting the world of the tribes who lived in harmony with rainforest for centuries.

Films like Vitalina Varela and The Fever open up exciting, reflective cinema for serious film viewers while encouraging a new method of developing original scripts and the employment of non-professionals as actors who go on to win awards. These films are indeed  different from the usual.

P.S.  The Fever is one of the author's top 20 films of 2019. Much of the dialogues quoted above are from memory of a single viewing and are approximations. The film won the Best Actor award for actor Regis Myrupu and the FIPRESCI prize for the best film at the Locarno Film Festival; the Silver Hugo Award for the best director at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Best Latin American Film Award at the Mar del Plata Film Festival (Argentina); the Roberto Rossellini  award at the Pingyao International Film Festival (China); and the Silver Alexander Award as the Special Jury Prize at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Greece).The Brazilian film Bacurau and the Portuguese film  Vitalina Varela have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access the reviews.)

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