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IFFR 2020 Tiger Competition

Review: Desterro

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- Maria Clara Escobar creates a misleadingly composed visual essay about the urgent need to burn down the walls that confine us

Review: Desterro

Maria Clara Escobar is presenting her first fiction feature film, Desterro [+see also:
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, in the Tiger Competition of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Divided into three chapters, this is a story about a young Brazilian couple: Laura (Carla Kinzo) and Israël (Otto Jr). Firstly, we observe their routines, their cold and distant interactions, their relationship with others — with their son, their family, their friends. The film then delves into the bureaucratic process following Laura’s sudden death during a trip to Argentina. Finally, in the third chapter, we are able to decipher pieces of the mystery surrounding Laura’s death, witnessing the events that preceded it.

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Inertia seems to rule the characters’ emotional behaviour as well as their spatial disposition, in mostly static compositions. In this portrayal of a loveless marriage between two individuals who appear stuck somewhere in the course of their lives, inaction is law and emotions heavily suppressed: these people are motionless pawns in a state of emotional withdrawal. But in what first appears to be a tableau of generalised apathy, Escobar shows us that there is still space for inner turbulence, emphatically bringing out this conflict through hyperbolic and metaphorical visual strategies, using images and objects to highlight particular emotions. She creates a dual storyline that bring us closer to this couple, showing us what is said and done in the one hand, and what is actually thought and felt on the other.

The film is punctuated by focal point transitions and thus alternates between different perspectives. The first chapter, entitled “We are the same”, presents two shifting points-of-view on the story, while the second is marked by Laura’s sudden disappearance from the screen due to her death. This brutal change gives us a chance to deepen our connection with the male counterpart of this duo. But in this space we share with Israël, there is no time for grief: he first must face the challenging bureaucratic process of bringing back Laura’s body from Argentina to Brazil, which leads him into a claustrophobic ride imbued with other people’s voices and facts. Even then, in this crowded and loud passage through an unbearably painful situation, apathy still prevails.

The third chapter, by contrast, is not simply a representation of Laura’s final moments — ironically, it is when life seems to begin. More than Laura’s spontaneous actions and truthful statements, this part of the film gives us the opportunity to hear the voices of other women: we listen to their stories and understand the ways they want or don’t want to be defined. Escobar’s final spotlight on these women could have been an essay about their role and the many hardships they have to face: a loose but still pivotal moment, it challenges our own perspective on Laura’s last attitudes and decisions, at the exact moment where we may begin to judge her. The film makes us face the fact that we are all somehow constrained by, or stuck in, society’s current structure, which is precisely what threatened this couple’s life.

The final scene brings our two main characters together — in death — showing us, in what appears to be almost endless scene, a house burning down in the background: a destruction that might lead to rebirth. This could have been a story about Laura, about Israel, about love or about women, but it ends up being about all of us, as a society: a reflection on our need to escape this general apathetic human condition, to return from our social and personal exiles. Desterro reminds us that we must combine our feelings and our words, that we must confront society, in order to create a new order — or perhaps simply to exist.

Desterro is a Brazilian-Portuguese-Argentinian production by Filmes de Abril (Brazil), Terratreme Filmes (Portugal) and Frutacine (Argentina).

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