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"Vazante" is an engrossing film from veteran director Daniela Thomas. It's a fascinating plunge into the social and racial politics in a dangerous frontier society, early-19th-century Brazil, a brutally racist Portuguese-ruled colony whose white masters set about extracting as much of the raw continental land's resources (diamonds and gold) as they could wrap their greedy mitts around.
Filmed in an almost X-ray-like black & white, Thomas' story opens in 1821. We are immediately plunged into the partial chaos of a brutal caste system that, as usual, privileges light skin over dark, men over women, Portuguese-speaking rich folks over fieldhands, especially those brought over from Africa in chains and unable to speak the dialects of other darker-skinned servants.
Compelled to wed a slave trader and share his decrepit farmhouse in the Brazilian mountains, a young woman just out of her teens, Beatriz, endures an emotional and physical ordeal in a land with few luxuries, even for the colonists. Even when she's following the actions of her male characters, Thomas never lets us forget the impact these selfish, driven men have on women from all backgrounds, and on studly young black field-workers.
Antonio finds that his young wife has died giving birth. Trapped in a decadent but rundown estate property in the company of his aging mother-in-law and many slaves, Antonio marries his wife's young niece, Beatriz. Removed from her family and essentially abandoned in an isolated mountain farmhouse, to keep from going mad Beatriz turns for comfort to the cruelly treated slaves and natives around her. Is it any wonder that this entertaining if punishing drama ends on a primal scream?
In this, her feature film debut as a solo director, Daniela Thomas manages to connect the dots between a nascent feminism, the lingering wages of colonialism and the brutal legacy of race and slavery that has for five-and-a-half centuries been the inheritance of a resource-rich land that spans almost half the South American continent.
Coming off a career where she had worked in live theater as well as in opera, Thomas got a crucial boost with a student stint at New York's La MaMa Experimental Theater. Once back in Brazil, she partnered with Walter Salles (director of the film about the youthful Che Guevara, "The Motorcycle Diaries") in the process of writing and co-directing three fiction features: "Foreign Land" (1996), "Midnight" (1998), and "Linha de Passe" (winner of the Palm D'Or for Best Actress to Sandra Corvelloni at the 2008 Cannes film festival), and many shorts, including the "Paris, Je T'aime" chapter "Loin du 16e" (2006). Thomas' other feature is "Sunstroke" (2009). Opening Friday at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas, "Vazante" runs 116 minutes, in Portuguese with English subtitles.
Luna Nastas and Adriano Carvalho in director Daniela Thomas' "Vazante." Photo: Music Box Films