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In the Heart of the World: Soap Opera Meets Social Realism in Brazil

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By Martin Kudláč.

The Brazilian cinema has been in the viewfinder of the International Film Festival Rotterdam for some time now and certainly for a good reason. New talents have been emerging and captivating cinema has been pouring out of the country despite the ever-increasing political turbulences. Brazilian films have been steady fodder for Rotterdam´s daring programming while the festival even dedicated an entire section to the contemporary Afro-Brazilian cinema this year.

In the last couple editions, a slot has been always reserved for Brazilian oeuvres in the main competition that has been occupied by rising domestic talents among them Marina Meliande with a socio-political almost fantasy thriller Sultry or a docu-fiction pilgrimage drama Djon África (in a co-production with Portugal) last year. In 2017, a deliberation on a life of a worker on the margins in the civil drama Árabia by Alfonso Uchoa and Joao Dumans  has garnered a considerable buzz as a competition title.

The main competition programmers did not break the habit in 2019 and introduced In the Heart of the World written and directed by a tandem of Gabriel Martins and Maurílio Martins (no relation) in the world premiere. It is not the first collaboration between the filmmakers who met during their university studies and shot short films Contagem (2010) and Dona Sonia Borrowed a Gun from her Neighbor Alcides (screened in Rotterdam in 2012) together. Dona Sonia with her firearm fondness makes a comeback in the feature-length debuting project by the Martins duo being actually a culmination of their previous small scale projects.

Both filmmakers grew up in a neighborhood of the Brazilian city Contagem (near Belo Horizonte) and all their stories unfold on this home turf. Shot on location with authentic people from the neighborhood aided by a host of professional actors, In the Heart of the World is a panorama of their city, the collective protagonist brought to life in an assemblage of different fates.

The scattershot narrative interweaves plotlines of a rich variety of characters, some sidelined to a secondary, minor, narrative strands such as the one of Dona Sonia somewhat repeating the deed from the short film. However even this minor character remains embedded into a larger canvas and a context of the whole story and space, while others being more dominant. In the Heart of the World opens in medias res with a public profession of love against which a hit job goes awry off the screen.

After the introductory credits stylized as a sparkly music video slightly fetishizing the urban nature of the city, the wrong hit job premise receives a further explanation more in a vein of a light comedy than grim social realist drama as might have been expected. And that´s the trigger sending Dona Sonia on a bloodlust journey and to a nearby shop to get the photo of her recently murdered grandson printed on a t-shirt in a scene inherently comic as it is heartbreaking.

The serious and light tone established in the initial scene of a love confession and hit job permeates the whole film. Gabriel and Maurílio Martins do not delineate clear distinctions in terms of genre except the spatial setting which is also the most common denominator of the characters and storylines.

The first scene peppers the multi-story of In the Heart of the World with a crime element whereas the profession of love sets off not so usual romance. The cavalcade of characters includes Ana taking care of her father while making shifts as a bus conductor as her boyfriend Marcos is knee-deep in the wrong hit job. The hitman is Beto, a criminal element of its own, and a burden to his brother Miro who works in a shop as his lover Rose fuels her professional ambitions by becoming an Uber driver on top of running a beauty salon. And a charming school photographer organizes a burglary although this plotline bears wider socio-economic implications and embodies the film´s chief topic of procuring better life for oneself in the most explicit and radical manner.

A tapestry of colorful characters, diverging and converging storylines and diverse assortment of genres, In the Heart of the World encapsulates the working class neighborhood and its inhabitants´ pains, be it legal or illegal ones, in pursuit of better prospects. Despite the strong mostly topical inkling towards social drama, the Martins´ collective project shuns the cliché conventions from the ilk of bleak social realism. Quite contrary, the directors render the multifold storylines in almost pop aesthetics (hip hop music, street culture, urban style) unburdened by the existential and emotional struggle of their characters.

Given the light tone of comedy infused into the veins of essentially rags-to-riches narrative does not wear depressing vibe on its sleeve. In the Heart of the World is basically a collision of multi-genre soap opera and social drama under the umbrella of urban poetics. Although the psycho-geographic domain remains the most dominant as the directors attempt to capture the plasticity of a single space.

Originally, the panoramic storytelling incorporated more characters and stories inflating the running time to 3-4 hours which is a scale of a miniseries rather than a feature project. As far as the writer-directors intentions go, the serialized format would have better suited the sprawling project. Guto Parente, the writer-director of Cannibal Club and colleague of the Martins duo, did the second round of editing omitting several characters and tightening Byzantine narratives into a more condensed form closer to a feature film framing than that of a miniseries ultimately leading to the final cut unveiled in Rotterdam´s main competition.

Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of outlets. He holds PhD in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).

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