Early Cinema Novo's 'Vidas Secas' (1963)
Still of 'Vidas Secas'
Background on Vidas Secas
'Vidas Secas' is a 1963 Brazilian drama film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and is based on the book by Graciliano Ramos. It is one of the first films from the so called Cinema Novo from Brazil. The Cinema Novo movement shied away from producing Hollywood-inspired films, like Brazil had done in the past, and started making their creating their own specific style. Heavily influenced by Italian Neo-Realism and French New Wave, they made something quite special. Very often the look and theme is referred to as 'The Aesthetics of Hunger'.
The story of a poverty-stricken family in the north-east of Brazil. We follow them for a short period of time and experience the problems they are facing.
English title: Barren Lives
Running time: 100 Min.
Vidas Secas review & analysis
Big social themes can be treated in multiple ways. Many films tend to overdo it. As 'Vidas Secas' is part of the first cycle of Brazilian Cinema Novo films, I was expecting it to make me feel the hunger before I had even started watching, but it actually was more subtle than I thought. Only to ruin it at the very ending. Yes this review and analysis contains spoilers.
Without much dialogue, and filmed like a black and white documentary reminding us of Italian neo-realism, we follow a man, his wife, two kids, and a dog. They are going from town to town hoping for a better life. When they reach the very first town they decide to stay because the father can work on the ranch. It does not take long before we realise he is being shamelessly exploited by his new boss. This immediately, together with the famous 'aesthetics of hunger', is screaming Marxism, but the theme of suppression and frustration building up to potential revolution is displayed quite cleverly.
Their harsh travels
Frustration not yet turning into revolution
The film is slow and at times, quite honestly, rather boring. But there are a few moments that are particularly interesting. These are the moments when the protagonist is facing the 'oppressor' face-to-face. Each time he is fighting for his human dignity, but always backs down. We can see the frustration building up. The first time we see this happening when he confronts his boss about paying him too little salary. But as soon as it turns into an actual conflict, the protagonist apologizes. The second time he shows more spirit when he is being quite mouthy against a local police officer. He immediately gets punished, and it is his boss who has to get him out of jail. When one of the other inmates later on offers him a place in his gang, he turnes it down (would have been a form of revolt as well). Even later in the film, he has the chance to kill the police officer who punished him, and although he seems eager (knife ready) he does not do it.
These moments make you feel the frustration and the injustice the family is facing. They are living lives no human should live. But they are unable to do something about it. There are only two options. Either by putting themselves out of their misery (as they do their sick dog) or start a revolution. The status quo equals living in hell. But of course, (like many) they do nothing and maintain the status quo.
Look at the suppressed anger on his face
And then the director stops being subtle
This notion is planted in your head very cleverly by director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, but then at the very end of the film he makes the mistake of letting the wife of the protagonist explain the whole film. How they felt (not as 'real people'), what their desires are etc. A mistake that is also not uncommon even in 2014 South-American films. This was the shame as the images already did all the talking and subtly made you understand their realities. Therefore the long monologue at the end is completely unnecessary, and a little condescending towards the viewer. The viewer understands, especially within the context of the Brazilian Cinema Novo, which can also be qualified as Third cinema.
4 out of 5 for Vidas Secas
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Where to watch Vidas Secas online
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to watch this film online, as it is quite old and in another language. Providers like Netflix and Amazon instant video do not have. You can, however, watch it on Youtube but without English subtitles. The video can be found below. Hope you can speak Portuguese, or download the subtitles elsewhere.