Friday, 29 August 2014

A film review: "Baixio das Bestas" [2006 Brazil]

"That stench you feel is that of a rotting world", exclaims Heitor to his neighbour and friend Mario, referring to falling standards of honour and respect within society. He ticks off a 'permissive' culture with 'loose morals', and castigates skimpily clad hostesses appearing on TV. He alleges that these occurrences are due to the lack of 'real men' with a sense of shame and authority. It is the same Heitor who will also display his teenage granddaughter naked to paying strangers at a truck stop. It is the same Heitor who gropes and treats the motherless child as slave, and it is the same monster who's also her biological father.

In "Baixio das Bestas" [Eng. Title: Bog of Beasts], Cláudio Assis pulls no punches in giving his tuppence-worth concerning sexual exploitation in the hinterlands of northern Brazil - a land of sugar plantations, poverty-stricken labourers, and denuded industry. The place is so poor that even prostitutes struggle to make a living; they'd put up with the worst kind of psychos to get by, because whatever business there is, is frequently siphoned off by pubescent (and younger) girls newly sold into slavery, often by family. It is the perfect playground for bored rich kids from city to indulge their misogyny in over their weekends. The film loosely follows two sub-plots that converge towards the end, but they're not the main focus because we mostly see them as faceless, voiceless people going about their lives - exploiting or suffering.

Mariah Teixeira in Baixia das Bestas Baixio das bestas
Mariah Teixeira in Baixio das bestas Mariah Teixiera and Caio Blat in Baixio das bestas

Fifteen year old Auxiliadora (played by a twenty one year old Mariah Teixeira) is the breadwinner for Heitor (played by Fernando Teixeira - and no relation to the former). Apart from cooking and 'looking after' her grandfather, she offers a mobile laundry service for townspeople, and is also the weekly strip show attraction at a highway truck-stop, overseen by Heitor himself.

Auxiliadora doesn't speak very much. True to her cruelly ironic name, which refers to someone who protects and helps, we watch her stoically go about her errands with an efficient, noble, almost automated fluency without as much as uttering a word. But her story is telling; she speaks for numerous souls in the same predicament as hers, almost everywhere even today. Circumstances will conspire to force her already desperate existence through hell and beyond, before she eventually discovers a way to survive.

Cicero (Caio Blat) is the son of an industrialist living and studying in Recife, only returning to his home town during weekends and holidays. After lazing around all day at home where a self-absorbed mother fails to establish any authority, he spends evenings and nights out with fellow-rich kid Everardo (Matheus Nachtergaele) who he's also in awe with, and who along with other layabouts, terrorise the neighbourhood and its brothels.

Their secret haunt is a disused cinema, owned by one of the gang members' father. They drink, pore over strewn film cuttings from porn films (there's apparently a lot to study from 70's pornochanchada), talk politics, play with guns, and viciously abuse prostitutes naive enough to visit their lair. The cinema aspect of the narrative also presents director Assis opportunities to expand on his symbolisms. "The best thing about cinema, is that you can do whatever you want", says Everardo, pointedly breaking the fifth wall during a passage of play. True, these guys can indeed get away with anything..!

The film is among the more brutal ones you're likely to come across. It is depressing as it is distressing, and there won't be a Hollywood-style finale even if you wait for the end-credits to finish rolling. Assis has a difficult subject to work with, and while it's not nearly as nuanced as his later films, it has a raging fire inside it - burning in solidarity with the people and the region that he too hails from. Almost every main character in the film symbolise something - they may be of the extreme kind, but they're also real - some of the horrendous scenes even mirror what we read in news bulletins these days, when we momentarily feel ashamed for belonging to the human race. It looks like nothing much has changed.

There are iconographic characterisations in the film, like the one played by Irandhir Santos as a cesspit/grave digger, who's in love but helpless in rescuing Auxiliadora from her grandfather - he represents a conscientious and aspirational Brazil that whistles its way through adversity and yet manages to party whenever it can. The cane plantations too are a film-character, and its burning towards the end represents regeneration and new life. Scenes featuring the region's native folk art of maracatu signify values and traditions that are maintained, against many odds.

The film scores very well in its technical values, and includes some of Assis' signature tracking shots courtesy of Walter Carvalho's engaging camera work. It has an eclectic but memorable soundtrack and the vibrant maracatu beats transport you across the ocean, to a more ancient time. The performances are real - disturbingly so, and many of the actors have since gone on to become household names - not because of this film, of course. Watching it is anything but pleasant - it is shocking and it will make you angry, but it is also a reality that needs to be told, an issue that needs to be addressed by society as a whole, and is naturally Highly Recommended Viewing..!

DVD Enquiry Link [NTSC]
This was among the pricier DVD's ordered recently through a Brazilian friend of mine. For a modern film, it is also inexplicably letterboxed-widescreen, but it does include English subtitles. Regardless, this film's crying out for a proper re-authoring!


The Nudity: Mariah Teixeira, Hermila Guedes, Matheus Nachtergaele, Dira Paes, and Caio Blat
The film features scenes of gang rape and other appalling forms of abuse, and no 'balanced' individual will enjoy watching it. The victims' pain and humiliation is plain to see even if one must have a degree of imagination to actually feel it themselves. These actors - either the abusers or the abused, must surely have gone through a bit of soul-searching before and after the film-shoot. Director Assis too appears (uncredited) as one of the gropers during a strip scene.

Mariah Teixeira, Hermila Guedes, Matheus Nachtergaele, Dira Paes, and Caio Blat nude in Baixio das Bestas


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