"If bread doesn't breathe, it gets stiff," says Madalena (Sônia Guedes), an elderly woman in the fictitious Brazilian village of Jotuombo, whose daily grind involves kneading dough and baking rolls before sunrise. She's talking to Rita (Lisa Fávero), a young photographer who happens upon the village, and indeed, before Rita's arrival, Madalena and her neighbors were living a rather airless and rigid existence. The first narrative feature from native Brazilian Julia Murat, Found Memories has all the makings of a turn-this-town-upside-down banality, its plucky drifter softening the crusty locals with her fresh breath of vitality. But Murat holds the reins on blatant convention about as tightly as she does the gaze of her static camera, which, like Rita, is most often a curious visitor of a sleepy haven forgotten by time. In this film of patient, carefully placed compositions, whose subjects leave and return instead of being followed, common metaphors are at once clearly framed and left unforced, resulting in a shrewd dance that continually tiptoes past built-in clichés. Of course, that same dance also yields a slightly troublesome glazing-over of themes, which sometimes seem as fleeting as the moments photography aims to freeze, but Murat knows how to create a sense of accumulation, with all roads leading to a pleasing end despite their disparate setbacks.
What leads Rita to Jotuombo are railroad tracks, whose extended lack of use aids the magical realism that Murat gingerly weaves into her narrative. The town is as modest as they come, where only the elderly reside and everyone has "forgotten how to die." The cemetery is locked, as decreed by God, who "spoke through" the local priest. To this place, Rita brings both progressiveness and endorsement. She is a walking contradiction. An old soul, she declares she was born in the wrong time, yet she's quick to think forward, just as she's keen on rocking out to Franz Ferdinand on her headphones. Her camera collection is a telling mix: the latest and greatest alongside old can and box contraptions. For Madalena, who writes nightly notes to her late husband, she offers a rebirth and an avenue of closure, shaking up a myriad of feelings within a woman gripped by grief and surrounded by male-dominated customs. "What do you think of young people?" Madalena asks Antônio (Luiz Serra), the coffee-making shop owner with whom she ritualistically bickers and prepares breakfast every morning. Content with quotidian acts but yearning for more, ready to die but grasping for life, Madalena proves to share the conflicts of her visitor, who serves as daughter, sister, student, teacher, and feminist ally. The connective tissue that trumps the mild excess of thematic ambitions is Murat's humanism, which ultimately surveys what it means to be set free.
With only a documentary, a short, and a video installation under her belt, Murat shows a fine grasp of form, letting her technique reflect the elements and moods of her story. Working with cinematographer Lucio Bonelli, she all but shares the eye of her on-screen photographer, lingering on chosen shots and intermittently interjecting stills of interest. Her deliberately paced approach briefly leans both grandiloquent (like when Madalena and Antônio underline the slowness by making coffee and watching it brew) and exploitative (like when ultra-weathered villagers take long stares at the camera like variants of Migrant Mother), but she largely scores a lovely poetry. Both visually and aurally, Rita's influence trickles into the film's construction, as only when we're alone with her does the camera suddenly go handheld, and only after she arrives is any type of score introduced. We're also given gorgeous nighttime shots lit with nothing but a gas lamp, whose glow is shared by Rita and Madalena as one snaps photos and the other mixes batter. Murat very purposefully stages these scenes as torch-passing moments between two surprisingly similar women—kindred spirits with strange spiritual paths. All told, the filmmaker binds the pair and blurs generational lines, adding, in a perfect parting shot, that providing the bread of life can be as empowering as it is dutiful.