Vidas Secas tells its story through oppressive silences and deafening wails.
The stillness of the desert is captured in its first instant, the camera observing a duo of vague figures in extreme long shot, distant enough to be mistaken for a mirage. The din of a horn penetrates the soundscape, representing the punishing heat of the sun through aural torment, decelerating the panning shot to a sedate crawl. As the human silhouettes enter the frame, carrying the weight of their possessions atop their heads, an unspoken despair couples with the cacophony, immersing the viewer in an earthen inferno.
A minimalist approach strips the canvas bare, allowing the camera to patiently observe and fragmentary dialogue to hang in the humid air. Conversations are incongruent and cluttered, words pouring out onto images of the blistering noon-day sun and craggy terrain, rarely emitted from mouths or communicating intelligible ideas. The slow, deliberate recitation and blunt phrasing flourish into rough-hewn poetry, transforming quotidian desires into starry-eyed reverie.
The procession of snapshots bears the authenticity of photojournalism, beholding the quiet beauty of rainwater trickling from terra cotta eaves and dusty hair dancing in a cool breeze. An air of sincerity permeates the picture, lending credence to the core relationships at play, particularly a pair of real-life siblings that bond over mutual responsibility, smiling heartily as they corral a flock of iron-willed billy goats.
Empathy builds through this austere and realistic tableau, heightening dramatic tension and compounding the forthcoming disgrace and dehumanization. Nelson Pereira dos Santos brilliantly utilizes livestock as his symbol for this subjugation, analogizing the branding of petrified cattle to the brutal lashing of Fabiano (Átila Iório), employing the patriarch’s squandering of funds and wrongful imprisonment as a statement on bureaucratic corruption and the inevitability of suffering. As hope recedes and the film veers into the purely metaphorical, dos Santos paints a grim portrait of innocence lost, revealing a fatalistic worldview through the eyes of his cherubic shepherds and their ailing hounddog.
The demoralization of the eldest son creeps forth from tales of fire and brimstone, transforming the fruitless plains and precipitous peaks of his barren home into the orange flames and sharpened pitchforks of perdition. Employing a child’s imagination to articulate his themes, dos Santos stresses the anguish of an existence not far removed from the hyperbole of Hell, steeling the audience for the misery of the closing passages.
Perpetuating a claustrophobic atmosphere through stationary shots, each taken at ground level, the camera stares death in the face, witnessing the euthanization of a hunting dog and fathoming the fear in his eyes as he tumbles to the brittle sand. As he nears expiration with each labored gasp, the camera pans to his scurrying prey, their swift motion bordering on elation, reflecting the human apathy that engenders the vicious cycle of poverty and desolation.
Vidas Secas (Sino Filmes, 1963)
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos
Written by Graciliano Ramos (novel) and Nelson Pereira dos Santos (screenplay)
Photographed by Luis Carlos Barreto and José Rosa