TTo the Left of the Father, the mistranslated title of Luiz Fernando Carvalho’s screen adaptation of Raduan Nassar’s novel Lavoura Arcaica, refers to the troubled young protagonist’s position at the family table in relation to his father, yet in the film’s savagely poetic world of anguished spirits, it might as well apply to his displaced role in the universe. A lofty claim, to be sure, but Carvalho’s intoxicating images, continually animated by a passion that cracks open the standard academicism of literary adaptations, invite cosmic contemplation as much as visceral immersion.
André (Selton Mello) is first seen in claustrophobic, darkened close-up, isolated in the frame until his older brother Pedro (Leonardo Medeiros) steps in to try to convince him to return to the rural Brazilian-Lebanese clan from which he’s ran away. As André reveals his flight from a loving-yet-entrapping family to be part of a tortured journey of emotional self-discovery, his seething psyche seems to all but spill across the screen; the warmly stifling stability of the past is contrasted with the frayed chaos and freedom of the present, with tight, dark visuals alternating with luxuriant idylls and spacious camera movements. The protagonist’s inner turbulence inevitably leads him back home, where he’s faced with stern rationalism from his father (Raul Cortez), entrapping affection from his mother (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), and forbidden desire from his sister (Simone Spoladore).
Long, heavy, and soberly elating, the film envisions a heightened reality, like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, where remembrances, emotions, and sensations are enlarged and, while sometimes flabbergasting, never less than vividly communicated. Carvalho keeps—and often has the characters recite—the original Nassar text in all its evocative poetry (André, for instance, yearns for “the wet womb of time”), yet this is above all a film of tangible textures and volatile ardor, where sunlight and moist dirt become supporting characters and feelings are jolts not unlike the epileptic shivers experienced by the protagonist.
Where To the Left of the Father falters, curiously, is in establishing these characters’ unrest in relation to their cultural heritage or, on a wider scale, to the social-economic upheavals of Brazil. The film’s inquiry into identity and family is ultimately weakened by the shaky period frame, so that their disintegration, while devastatingly evoked, rattles in a political vacuum that denies them the astounding resonance of, say, Emir Kusturica’s Underground or Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth. If the absence of connection between national and personal identities reduces its specificity in the end, Carvalho’s film nevertheless remains a fierce document, rigorous and startling in its portrayal of a soul wrestling for wholeness.