Screens at CIFF: 10/7 & 10/8 & 10/15
World Premiere: 12 August, 2011, Festival de Cinema de Gramado

One of the unalloyed delights of any film festival of a decent size & in possession of a well-appointed selection committee is that it gives you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see things you otherwise might never have heard of even in passing, things that turn out to be life-changingly good. Okay, "life-changingly" is a lot to put on any film, but still: because of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, I got to see the Brazilian film Southwest, directed and co-written by Eduardo Nunes, which is not at this writing on, and about which I can find very little information otherwise. If we did not have the good fortune to live in an age where Google can translate websites at the click of a button, "very little" would be "essentially none"; Marilyn Ferdinand suggests that it was released in its native country in a shorter cut than the one playing at CIFF (which cut does not want to be any shorter, I promise), and I'll take her word on it, as her review is very nearly the only piece of journalism on the movie I've found in English.

This is, on the one hand a criminal shame, because Southwest is excellent: maybe the best directorial debut of the last year or two that I've had the good fortune to see, the kind of film that is at once so simplistic and even primitive in its effect that it feels like something you've always known about, and yet so brave and even revolutionary in its aesthetic that it almost seems to be the work of a brand new medium. On the other hand, the very fact that it's so blazingly obscure makes it a special little snowflake: it feels like it's mine, my own private little masterpiece that I'm going to cherish for years and years, that nobody will ever know about besides me. I discovered it & I get to keep it. A barbarically selfish way to approach cinephilia, but haven't we all had that feeling from time to time? It's really just the opposite side of the blockbuster coin, the films that we love in part because of the sense that we're partaking in some cultural Event that everybody else is experiencing just like we are. Everyone loves it, or nobody else loves it whatsoever: two wholly opposite and wholly fulfilling poles of fandom.

The film opens with a setpiece right out of Dickens, or more on point, a fairy tale: a dying woman gives birth to an infant girl in the presence of a prostitute, Conceição (Dira Paes), and a bruxa, Dona Iraci (Léa Garcia). The latter woman performs the necessary charms to safely take the baby from the dead body of her mother, christens her Clarice, and takes her to a cabin on stilts in the middle of a lake. Later that day, a local boy, João (Victor Navega Motta) goes on adventure with his friends to that same house, and finds a girl (Raquel Bonfante) his own age hiding there. On her own time, she follows him to the mainland and it takes only a little bit of time watching her observe the local fisherman grousing about the poor quality of the fishing lately with the mute intensity of, oh, say, an infant, that we figure out that this girl, who eventually identifies herself as Clarice, is against all logic the 9-year-old version of a child born just a handful of hours earlier.

Moreover, she's João's niece, for once she follows her newfound playmate home, we learn that his older sister was the same woman who died in childbirth; and that woman's mother, Clarice's grandmother, Luzia (Mariana Lima) quickly takes to the child with the attention that only a bereaved mother could lavish on someone; but Clarice's grandfather, Sebastião (Julio Adrião), takes a much darker view of the situation. None of these people ever learn that Clarice is their Clarice, nor do they ever imagine that the adult woman (Simone Spoladore) or elderly woman (Regina Bastos) who visit them on the same day are all the same person as that child; and even we, in the audience, are given only implications & nothing concrete you can pin down as to the exact degree to which Clarice is re-living her mother's experience and memories.

Southwest plays at a number of themes and ideas about memory, identity, and the inevitability and cyclicity of history (there is an ecstatic, brain-melting moment when a seemingly inchoate insert shot of a woman's face early on is paired with a shot of a girl's face near the end, and we realise with a shot that the child Clarice was visioning herself on her deathbed, and vice versa); there is a little religious symbolism and a lot of mysticism. There is the idea of life as a precious gift: Clarice gets one day from the bruxa in lieu of nothing at all, and she learns in that short time to enjoy the quiet moments with loved ones, at peace and centered within one's soul. I don't want to insist on a reading: like any great fairy tale, it can mean something a little bit different for anyone, and this is absolutely a great fairy tale; the only form it more closely resembles is a dream, not just because it makes no rational sense, but because it is constructed basically as a series of ellipses: the spaces between scenes register as jumps from moment to moment, just in exactly the way that you can, in a dream, walk through the door to your kitchen and be inside a Wal-Mart auto center, and the girl you were walking next to is now your grandma.

Dreams, I have found, should not be analysed, but enjoyed.

If all that's a little flim-flam and I don't even know what the fuck I'm saying for your tastes, I have one other thing: the film looks stunning. It's in a particularly lovely kind of gauzy black and white, but the really interesting and weird thing is that it's in widescreen; no, wider than that; really wide. The screener box I had was labeled 3.66:1, and I didn't measure, but I'm pretty sure that's not a typo; and that means that the film is a jaw-dropping 1.4 times wider than Technirama, the widest common format in history* You don't need to be a nerd to notice that Southwest is almost painfully horizontal; but Nunes and cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro, Jr. make it work through a uniformly excellent series of horizontal compositions and a great deal of lateral camera movement that give the movie an even more panoramic feeling than it already has; the effect is rather like looking at an illuminated scroll, or like the oh-so-rectangular illustrations in an old-time storybook, the kind that frequently opened up into Disney movies way back when.

If Southwest has a single big problem, it's that it is so inscrutable that it leaves itself wide open, and not undeservedly, to the lazy criticism of being "pretentious"; but regular readers are aware that I'm not apt to let a little pretension bother me. Though it would be nice to have a little more direction to go on. Even with that not-inconsiderable flaw, or other little ones peppered here or there, this is a masterpiece that deserves an international release it is assuredly not going to receive: and that brings us back to film festivals, those wonderful places where movies like this can find, if only in a tiny way, their audience. God bless them, every one.

*To be fair, the decidedly non-obscure Ben-Hur is nearly 3:1, for it is the most prominent film made in a fairly short-lived process called Ultra Panavision. But let us not get stuck in an aspect ratio & film format conversation right now.