The work of a director seemingly imprisoned by her own good taste, Daniela Thomas’s Vazante is never less than gorgeous, recalling Radu Jude’s Aferim! and Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, just to name two other recent sumptuously photographed black-and-white period pieces. Jude and Gomes both used the beauty of their images to deepen the weight of their thematic interests—Jude by using his neo-Fordian landscapes to turn his anti-slavery parable into an ironic western, Gomes by depicting the gauzy nostalgia that surrounds Portugal’s colonialist past. Thomas, on the other hand, seems stymied by her own images, unable to extract the turmoil and violence suggested by her story for fear of upsetting the austere surface harmony of her visuals.
That’s a shame, because Thomas’s story and its milieu are brimming with the potential for dramatic intrigue, emotional heft, and historical richness. Set in early 19th-century Brazil, Vazante centers on a remote manor estate tucked into the foothills of the Diamantina Mountains. When slave trader Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) returns home from a trading expedition, he discovers that his wife has just died during childbirth. After sulking around for a while, he takes an interest in his wife’s niece, Beatriz (Luana Nastas), who’s staying in Antonio’s sprawling mansion with her parents. While Antonio puts off consummating the marriage until the girl has reached puberty, Beatriz strikes up a secret romance with a slave boy, Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos).
There’s plenty of inherent drama in Thomas’s tale, but her presentation of it all is so impassive, so doggedly unemphatic, that it makes little impact. Obsessed with the aristocratic ennui of its characters, Vazante is filled with lengthy, brooding shots of people sitting around doing nothing in particular. Perhaps intended to evoke the decadence of the slaveholder class, this unwavering air of world-weary sullenness too often lapses into ponderousness. And though the narrative sits at the intersection of so many vital issues of identity, sexual exploitation, racism, and the cruel legacy of slavery, Thomas never manages to explore these subjects in any depth.
Antonio understands nothing about the lives of those he holds in bondage; he can’t even communicate with some of them, who were recently brought over from Africa and speak only their native tongue. But the irony is that we, as viewers, comprehend Antonio (and everyone else in the film) no better than he comprehends his slaves. We’re given no means of accessing these pensive, personality-free ciphers. They’re all lacking in vitality and simple human emotion up until the film’s final moments, when Antonio lets out an anguished cry. But even here, Thomas shies away from emotional turmoil, abruptly cutting to black and rolling the credits before Antonio can even completely let out his scream. It’s one last frustratingly artsy distancing maneuver in a film that too often seems to be composed entirely of them.