Something’s amiss from the start in Southwest, Eduardo Nunes’s visually resplendent but confounding debut. A doctor of ulterior methods (Léa Garcia), a witch according to many in the Brazilian coastal village depicted in the film, arrives at an inn to treat a young pregnant woman named Clarice who passes away in spite of the visitor’s efforts. Her death, however, is offset by the unexplained, possibly magical, survival of her child, also named Clarice, who’s taken by the witch and presumed dead by the rest of the town. This child mysteriously ages several years in a matter of hours, from a baby to an elderly woman. (In between, as a pre-adolescent, she wanders into town and is taken in by her dead mother’s family.) At different points it appears as if we’re witnessing a flashback of the dead woman’s life, her spirit’s resurrection, her fantastical return to anonymously console her little brother and parents, or something altogether more mysterious.
The inscrutability of the plot, intriguing at first, is ultimately impenetrable. Furthermore, the film only works insofar as it allows the audience to get comfortable in its slow pacing and mood, but any progress toward letting that occur is repeatedly undercut by confounding shifts in tones, particularly as the soundtrack switches periodically from the ominous sounds of a thriller to pop compositions to twinkling melodies that wouldn’t be out of place in a video game. The film’s disparate registers find short-lived union only during Nunes’s numerous, snail-paced tracking shots, which convey both a sense of wonder and suspense while crawling through and revealing Clarice’s world.
Southwest draws quite a bit of strength from Nunes’s images, which are shot in black and white on 35mm with a very wide aspect ratio that gives the entire film a panoramic feel. But the film’s visual style also reflects its somewhat jumbled plotting. At times Nunes evokes Terrence Malick, his camera taking in the world around it like an ingenuous child, fixating on cracks in the walls and the faces of the local peasants and fisherman, but also on fingers pushing through a meadow and light passing through the trees. At other times, Nunes resorts to strikingly framed still shots, just as beautiful as his moving ones, but more attuned to a sense of dread and foreboding that recalls Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. From a fisherman’s early warning that the river and town are slowly dying, to later implications of incest and maybe curses, a dark temper pervades Southwest alongside its sense of wonder toward the town and the Brazilian landscape.
That both Haneke and Malick come to mind while watching Southwest indicates the level of aesthetic and intellectual heft that Nunes is reaching for here. But if those seem like incompatible stylists to invoke in one film, their equal influence also points to the movie’s main limitation. This doesn’t come from the film’s ideas and certainly not from a lack of skill behind the camera. Left wanting, rather, is an effective fusion of the movie’s many remarkable elements.