Vidas Secas 11/07/14 2:45
The film represented a break with the previous romantic, imitative trends in Brazilian movies. It was one of the opening salvos in what became known as the "Cinema Novo" movement, in which Brazilian filmmakers broke with Hollywood-style glamour to tell stories of stark populist realism. Based on a 1938 novel by Graciliano Ramos, Vidas Secas (which means "Barren Lives") is more stylistically inventive than the plot summary might indicate. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning—the slightly overexposed lighting style makes the impoverished desert setting almost palpable. Point-of-view shots predominate: the director does not hesitate to present the action from the vantage point of a young child, or even—in one brilliant sequence—the family dog, who plays a key role in the story. The use of hand-held shots is somewhat unusual for the time. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, with a lot of the story told through the gestures and facial expressions of the actors.
One of the picture's central insights is that conditions of poverty make it difficult for people to resist immediate temptations of pleasure by planning for the future, since there is so little joy or fulfillment in the present. The injustice of the system is portrayed matter-of-factly, as if part of the landscape, rather than the stereotype of personal good and evil. The father and mother are fallible struggling human beings rather than heroes—still we long for them to gain even a little distance from the daily grind of poverty. The indifference and cruelty of the landowner who offers the father employment is a mere symptom of the way things are in this almost barren land. Although the sociopolitical implications are overt, Perreira de Santos' brilliant style ultimately strikes deeper. This is a portrait of both suffering and endurance, a film of great humanism, in which the experience of each member of the family is honored and given its due. It fathered an entire tradition of cinematic realism in Brazil.
Vidas Secas is available on DVD.