A fascinating look at the life of a poor Brazilian family in search of a better life Vidas Secas a.k.a Barren Lives (1963) is a film of unusual visual contrasts. Based on the novel by Graciliano Ramos, a work heavily compared to Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and shot in glorious black and white this rather unknown in America film offers a glance at the legacy of one of South America's most prolific film directors. Vidas Secas plays out as part-documentary feature part silent exploration of the unprivileged in rural Brazil.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, one of the front runners of the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, Vidas Secas looks much more contained than what I assume the film was perceived to be back in the early 1960s. The long shots of Fabiano (Atila Iorio) and Sinha Vitoria (Maria Ribeiro) walking mile after mile in a sea of dry weeds and strangely looking dead trees transform this film into an almost meditative journey. In it there is also very little dialog which is only used when Nelson Pereira dos Santos needed to shift the allure of Vidas Secas from being a visionary experience to a film with a heavy social context.
It is hard not to think about Vidas Secas as a film heavily influenced by the Italian Neo-Realism. Intentionally or not, while I was looking at the troubled face of Fabiano and the breathtaking Brazilian landscape I kept seeing images of Rossellini's early films. There is something very indicative about the style in which Vidas Secas was shot particularly because of the fact that the film was intended as a revealing social satire.
As it is the case with Cinema Novo where there is hardly a unifying link between the films associated with the notorious movement Vidas Secas is a highly individualistic work. The unusual filming style which Nelson Pereira dos Santos conveys is a product of a cultural and political frustration with the social ordinance of the Brazilian society which manages to entice and anger both at the same time. There is a scene in Vidas Secas where the main protagonist Fabiano finds himself in a treacherous card game with a village policeman and is unceremoniously exposed to what I can only describe as public harassment. Indeed, at least to me the social message which Nelson Pereira dos Santos had in mind speaks loud and clear.
As Nelson Pereira dos Santos also admits European Neorealism had a profound experience on his reincarnation as a film director (a natural continuation of the impact which Russian cinema and French realism had on him). He quotes Glauber Rocha noting that "a camera in the hand and an idea in the head" was what Brazilian cinema needed at the time. With Vidas Secas in particular I would certainly conclude that it was more than just an idea in the head that Nelson Pereira dos Santos had to entertain. He had a clear vision as to how he wanted to adapt Graciliano Ramos' novel and plenty of talent to make it possible.
Despite the array of different influences which Vidas Secas conveys this unique film certainly sheds some light at the enormous potential of a director whose works are considered amongst the best examples of Cinema Novoľa movement that allowed generations of young Brazilian directors to begin their careers. And while time has certainly left its mark on this, until recently forgotten masterpiece, its reemergence on the planning sheets of film distributors will make those interested in Brazilian cinema quite happy.
In 1963 Vidas Secas won the OCIC Award (granted to director Nelson Pereira dos Santos) at the Cannes Film Festival.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 Vidas Secas offers an above average quality where contrast appears satisfactory, blacks are rather well saturated, and the print is generally acceptable for non-progressive high-end TV sets. I have two issues with the transfer: the first one I assume is of purely technical nature pertaining to the film stock used for this release. Clearly it must have been a poorly archived master as the film showcases some occasional dust specs and unobtrusive damage. I understand that this is how the original master was kept so I am satisfied with the presentation offered by the New Yorker. The second and in my opinion more important issue is something which New Yorker could have handled better: the lack of progressive treatment resulting in minor "combing".
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Portuguese track and optional English subtitles the film sounds good. There is some occasional very minor hissing but considering how limited the dialog scenes are this is not an issue that I would even bother worrying about. I am indeed quite pleased with the audio treatment.
Surprisingly New Yorker have provided plenty of extras which makes the acquisition of this DVD release essential. There is a short film of about 20 min. titled Baleia the Dog (2002) that focuses on some curious anecdotes that "explain" the fame of the director at Cannes, his reception by the critics, and exciting reunion with the main star Maria Ribeiro. In addition, there is a revealing discussion with the editor of Brazilian Cinema Professor Robert Stam who also appears on the faculty of NYU. Last but not least the DVD comes with a beautiful booklet with an extremely insightful interview with the director of Vidas Secas Nelson Pereira dos Santos.
A mesmerizing production of unusual visual beauty Vidas Secas is a welcome addition to the few classic Brazilian films available in North America. The actual presentation could have been a bit more convincing but the fact that this film actually made on DVD is a pure miracle. For that alone: RECOMMENDED.