The small rituals of everyday life are a far cry from the high-concept drama that dominates the output at Hollywood studios. And whether we like it or not, a film about a married couple who do little more than work, eat, watch TV and bicker – as so many couples do – is a tough sell for your average theatergoer. Where’s the plot to destroy ‘murrica? The damsel in distress? The homicidal madmen or the selfless heroes?
Sure, these types of extraordinary stories are rooted in something very human (even mythological) but contemporary filmmakers have begun to discover that we can reveal complex truths about the human condition through even the most banal documents of daily existence. The recent Brazilian documentary Ela volta na quinta, by first-time director André Novais Oliveira, is firmly (almost defiantly) rooted in this tradition of the mundane.
Turning his camera to his own parents – a middle-class, Afro-Brazilian couple living on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte – Oliveira observes as they move through their unremarkable domestic routines while slowly revealing that their 35-year marriage is in a state of acute crisis. But where a Latin American telenovela might prefer to make this fact obvious through histrionics and operatic emotions, Oliveira lets it sink in little by little, showing that these protracted interpersonal conflicts are never as over-the-top as Televisa might want us to think. Rather, they weigh invisibly on our daily lives and tear at us in ways that are often imperceptible to the rest of the world.
But most importantly, Oliveira does this with style. The trailer reveals his use of meticulously composed long takes, working brilliantly with available light and the visual geometry of his parents’ quotidian habitat. His use of Faye Adam’s 1953 rendition of the R&B classic “Take a Hand” to drive along the editing doesn’t add much narratively, but it seems like just about every young filmmaker since Scorsese will jump at an opportunity to flash their obscure record collection for the moviegoing public. And in this case, it does kinda work for Oliveira. All in all, it’s a promising debut.