From Vidas Secas to Central Station, Brazil’s northeast has long held a cinematic place as a sweltering netherworld of struggle, madness, and stark landscapes. It’s an area that holds particular interest to writer-directors Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes, who have examined its rapport with characters in previous features (Love for Sale and Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures, respectively) and who team up for a far more experimental take in I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You.
The title comes from a poster glimpsed during one of the many roadside stops made by unseen protagonist Renato (voiced by Irandhir Santos), a geologist assigned to research the sun-cracked sertão scrubland for a water canal project that will slice through the area. Improvising his own travelogue with a camera mounted for the most part on his car window, Renato records the measurements and fractures of the Earth, but also the faces of the people living on it, among them wizened figures about to be evacuated from spectral villages, rough yet plaintive prostitutes, circus troupers, and religious pilgrims venturing into the desert. Most of all, however, the camera records his displaced melancholy as his voiceover slides from scientific dictation to personal rumination and the vast, empty spaces come to reflect a deeply despondent psyche.
Taking more than a page from Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman, and Jia Zhang-ke, Aïnouz and Gomes blend documentary with fiction to forge a tactile, strikingly woozy first-person perspective. Their amalgam of bleeding, flaring film formats (including Super 8 stock, digital video, and grainy still pics) leaves them open to accusations of placing pictorial aestheticizing before social drama, yet it also yields countless visual felicities, ranging from meticulously composed images of headlights materializing and vanishing in the dusky horizon to wobbly shots of 19th-century architecture that suggest science-fiction settings.
Indeed, despite its share of over-explanatory lines (“The truth is that it’s me who I can’t stand”), the protagonist’s narration continually brings to mind the musings of a not-entirely-sane space traveler exploring a strange planet. Late in the film, Renato alternately compares the outcome of his journey to having survived a disaster and to having ingested a mind-stirring tranquilizer. Which of the two sums up the experience of I Travel Because I Have To depends on one’s acceptance of its languid, video installation-style impressionism, though either way its portrait of emotional crisis projected through a dusty windshield isn’t easily forgotten.