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O País de São Saruê (1971)

| Documentary
Documentary about a region in Northeast Brazil, situated in an area subject to severe drought, and the evolution of its economic activities.

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Paulo Pontes ...
Portuguese Narration
Echio Reis ...
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Documentary about a region in Northeast Brazil, situated in an area subject to severe drought, and the evolution of its economic activities.

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The title of the film was inspired by the title of a handmade booklet sold in northeast Brazil, by Manoel Camilo dos Santos, from the State of Paraíba. See more »

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Barren Lives
19 November 2007 | by (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) – See all my reviews

Vladimir Carvalho's influential, troubled documentary reveals to us the dire reality of the population of Rio do Peixe, in the hinterland of the state of Paraíba (Northeast Brazil), and their struggle against the harsh weather (long droughts cut by sudden violent floods). We see the perennially pauper cotton croppers, sugar-cane cutters and cowherds at their weekly meeting in a small marketplace where they try to keep up the slowly dying traditions (dances, chantings, costumes, food). It also about their dream of finding the promise land of São Saruê (a sort of local Eldorado) in a region said to be rich in mineral ores, though the past attempts at exploration were frustrated for logistic and political reasons.

Shot under extremely difficult conditions -- expired film stock, zero budget, inhospitable nature -- from 1966 to 1970, during the Brazilian military regime, the entire filming crew consisted of Carvalho, cameraman Manuel Clemente and assistant Walter Carvalho (the director's younger brother who would become Brazil's top cinematographer in the 1990s and 2000s). The soundtrack mixes excerpts of the interviews with the local people with pop and traditional songs, a commentary written by the director and the magnificent, volcanic political verses of Jomar Moraes Souto's epic poem, written especially for the film. "País..." was finalized in 1971 but its public exhibition was vetoed by the military censorship (classifying it as "harmful to Brazilian interests and dignity") until 1979, when it opened to great critical acclaim.

In 2004, the film was saved from total deterioration and painstakingly restored. The DVD release by VideoFilmes is based on the remastered copy, but don't expect pristine images or travelogue aesthetics: this is a harsh, primitive black-and-white film about a harsh, primitive reality. The technique is also primitive, but the images are powerful: some of them now belong to an extinct past, like the rustic ox-operated sugar-cane mill called "bolandeira" (re-created by Walter Salles in "Behind the Sun") or the traditional format of the Cavalo Marinho song-and-dance celebration. Others are still very much alive, like unchanging poverty, religious fervor, major illiteracy, labor exploitation and politicians' maladministration.

The film has highs and lows: it moves (coherently) slowly, it digresses a lot, some of the interviews are over-extended and some that might be interesting weren't made. And sure, the commentary written by Carvalho is politically biased -- remember, those were radical times in Brazilian history. But the people's struggles and desolation come across poignantly in some indelible images, though it's Souto's soaring, sarcastic, virtuoso epic poem that gives the film its extraordinary power -- it HAS to be one of the major epic poems ever written. And there's a truly heart-wrenching, unforgettable sequence with a destitute, famished cotton-cropping family trying to find something (anything) to eat, while we listen to the great singer/ composer Luís Gonzaga's devastatingly moving rendition of Zé Dantas's song "Acauã" (the name of the small frail bird the father shoots, roasts and shares with his wife and son) -- in those 4 minutes, "País de São Saruê" transcends the socially-aware, denunciative documentary form to become a universal, timeless work of art.


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