An exposé of severe poverty with every trace of glamour carefully removed, José Padilha’s documentary Garapa finds the Elite Squad auteur training his camera on the poorest of the poor: the struggling families of Brazil’s rural villages and urban favelas. Opening and closing with an explanatory text that situates the action in the context of a world hunger epidemic, the film otherwise avoids unnecessary exposition as well as the flash of the director’s Golden Bear winner, instead simply watching its three subject families performing their daily tasks—much of which has to do with the acquisition and consumption of food—as they unfold through sometimes excruciatingly extended takes.
Only occasionally interrupting this observational mode to directly interrogate the subjects (and in one case provide them with pain medication), Padilha lets their quotidian lives dictate the content of the film. Endless shots of naked children cavorting (one of the subject families has 11), close-ups of flies buzzing around scabies-infested skin, the constant mixing of the titular concoction (a sugar water capable of warding off hunger, but providing nothing in the way of nutrition) all captured in excessively grainy black and white, this is the damning evidence of the cycle of poverty that forms the putrid core of Padilha’s film. The circumstances of the three families follow more or less the same pattern: the inability of the father to find work, often compounded by an alcohol problem, an ignorance about birth control methods, severe malnutrition in the kids and a reliance on the aid of others—the church, government programs, a generous individual benefactor—to avoid complete starvation.
Emerging through Padilha’s interviews with his subjects as well as through a particularly revealing sequence where one of the subjects takes her children to a health clinic (among the horrendous details that emerge here, the family is forced to defecate in plastic bags because they don’t own a toilet), this background information provides a bare minimum of context that helps situate the film’s observational core. For the rest, Padilha simply watches, and after the endless repetition of the same fruitless actions what emerges is not simply the horror or the futility of poverty, but the terrible banality of the daily existence it gives rise to. The contradictory evidence of flashy entertainments like City of God or Slumdog Millionaire notwithstanding, this last observation seems about right.