Veteran Brazilian filmmaker Júlio Bressane is one of a generation of underground directors that blossomed in the shadow of the early 1960s Cinema Novo movement. And though he remains very much a cult proposition, both in his native country and abroad, time has conferred upon him the acclaim earned by a 50-year career spent doing things his way; Mr. Bressane is a living link with the 1960s, feverishly inventive generation of Glauber Rocha and the later Tropicalistas, and an avowed influence for the current generation of independent regional auteurs that has been coming to the fore in the 2000s.
But, despite the "underground"/"radical" tag of many of his films, A Erva do Rato, currently his next-to-latest movie, is an elegantly enveloping and disquietingly diffuse "Brazilian Gothic", openly inspired (but not directly based on) two short stories from 19th-century writer Machado de Assis. It starts with a casual meeting in a cemetery between a man and a woman who will never be named (Selton Mello and Alessandra Negrini), the only characters in a two-hander that is by turns luminously cinematic, atmospherically literary and harshly theatrical in nature, without ever leaving the confines of the house where both live.
Formally exquisite and narratively opaque, A Erva do Rato is less of a traditional, linear storyline, more of an edgy metaphorical exploration of sexuality as seen through a relationship literally born from death (the Man and the Woman meet in a cemetery where both are visiting the deceased) and rotting from the inside equally as literally. There is no sexual relationship between them throughout, as the Man seems to sublimate the sex they don't have through the fetishized sexual photography while the Woman can only give herself pleasure with the rats that prowl the house and nibble on the husband's pictures. What Mr. Bressane means by it all, though, is entirely up to the viewer and his tolerance level to the spell the director casts almost effortlessly.
The conflagration of love, sex and death at work here has something of the accursed poet or of the fearless explorer of the darkest corners of the human psyche, but in going too far deep into the rabbit hole the director may have lost his way - A Erva do Rato has a rhythmic, musical sense of construction that invites repetition as much as redundancy, and at moments it feels too much as if Mr. Bressane delights too much in the form and not enough in the function. For all that, you may come out of the screening not understanding fully what it is you have just seen, but the ride is haunting enough to keep you guessing for a while.
A ERVA DO RATO
Cast Alessandra Negrini, Selton Mello
Director Júlio Bressane; screenwriters Rosa Dias, Mr. Bressane; cinematography Walter Carvalho (colour, widescreen); composer Guilherme Vaz; art director Moa Batsow; costumes Ellen Millet; editor Rodrigo Lima; producer Marcello Ludwig Maia; production companies República Pureza Filmes and TB Produções in co-production with Labo Cine do Brasil
Screened May 21st 2014 (DVD)