Just One Film: Geraldo Sarno’s "Sertânia" — Feverish Odyssey In Brazilian Backlands

Geraldo Sarno's rapturous new fiction feature, "Sertânia," mines the historical wounds of Brazil's northeastern backlands.
Ela Bittencourt

Just One Film is a series that recommends individual films from festivals around the world—the movies you otherwise might have missed that deserve to be discovered.

“In the backlands, we speak the language of Goethe, of Dostoevsky, of Flaubert, because the backlands are the land of eternity, of solitude,” says the narrator in Geraldo Sarno’s documentary short, I Carry the Backlands in Me (Eu Carrego Sertão Dentro de Mim, 1980), quoting the great Brazilian modernist writer Guimarães Rosa. Born in Bahia, in 1938, the Brazilian director has built a prominent filmography, mostly documentaries, from the 1960s to the present. At the core of Sarno’s oeuvre lies the affirmation of sertão’s primacy in Brazilian psyche. This notion—that what appears peripheral is in fact central, at the root of authentic popular zeitgeist—played a key role in developing Brazil’s national cinema. We can appreciate its enduring power, watching contemporary Brazilian films such as the wildly popular thriller, Bacurau, set in the country’s northeastern outskirts.

Embodied by Cinema Novo directors including Glauber Rocha, the creative push into the sertão was carried out in the late 1960s and early ‘70s by the Farkas Caravan, a project by the Brazilian-Hungarian documentary director and photographer Thomaz Farkas to produce Cinema Truth (Cinema Verdade) series, mapping out the northeast. In the midst of the dictatorship, the Caravan produced over twenty films, including Geraldo Sarno’s prominent short, Viramundo (1965). It was the first in his series of documentaries that explored in bracing yet poetic style the region’s economic fragility, Dust-Bowl landscapes and treacherous climate, prone to devastating droughts, its tormented past, but also its rich artisanal production, music, folkloric literature, and mysticism.

It’s useful to know Sarno’s immense contribution to the representation of Brazil’s northeast and northeastern migrants in central regions, in desperate search for work and survival, to appreciate his feverish black-and-white historical feature, Sertânia (2018). The film played at a number of Brazilian film festivals this year, including Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, in Minas Gerais, Ecrã, in Rio de Janeiro, and Olhar de Cinema, in Curitiba.

At its core, Sertânia is an origins story. A young man, Antão Gavião (Vertin Moura), searches for his father in the backlands, after a tragic separation in childhood. Antão leaves the prosperous São Paulo, where he was brought from the backlands, along with his mother, to be raised by an army captain. He takes a train into the hinterland and soon finds himself in the company of an irascible rebel-cum-bandit, Captain Jesuíno (Julio Adrião), and his band. As the brigands invade a small town to extort its wealthy inhabitants, starving migrants descend on the town square.

The film doesn’t begin, however, with Antão’s odyssey through the northeast. Instead, it starts with Antão lying prostrated amidst parched shrubbery, wounded and on the brink of death. As Antão’s feverish vision blurs, we come to understand that the film’s real journey is metaphysical. To this end, snippets of Antão’s biography intertwine and overlap, as if threads in a tapestry. As Antão hallucinates, memories intrude upon his crude physical experience of death. The film plunges into delirium.

Sertânia’s exquisiteness lies in the mastery with which Sarno and his co-editor, Renato Vallone, take up the idea of delirium to create a porous sense of time. Time is not only circular, but also its different, sometimes distant points play out as if happening all at once. Like a Faulknerian character, Antão lies dying amidst the shrubbery. But he is also immersed in the imagistic world of his childhood, feeding goats with his mother, or squatting in Canudos, the site of the infamous conflict, in the years 1896 – 1897, that ended with the massacre of civilian population by the Republican army. Antão is the unlikely fortunate survivor of this massacre (in reality, many children and women were murdered, while a few, like Antão and his mother, were carried off by the victors). In a parallel timeframe, Antão roams the backlands with a group of bandits, alongside the notorious Jesuíno. The latter is a profoundly troubling figure: authoritarian, implacable, roguish, akin to Cormac McCarthy’s amoral marauders in the American West. And yet, Antão conflates the Captain hopelessly with his own yearning for the lost paternal figure—for someone to govern and make sense of the symbolic order. Antão’s quest is therefore doomed: His idols are either dead or spurious, and History’s ghosts return, but can’t revive sufficiently to protect him. Having identified with the migrants, seeing himself and his lineage in their plight, Antão is no longer a product of his urban upbringing or a casual traveler amongst the poor. Sarno portrays him not as martyr, criminal, or stuff of legends, but rather a consciousness struggling to fathom its own existence.  

Thanks to the film’s contextual denseness and the claustrophobia with which we are entrenched in Antão’s point of view, wedged deep in his psyche, experiencing Sertânia is akin, at times, to reading a novel. Hence the comparison to McCarthy, in the film’s baroque flourishes, gorgeously executed by Sertânia’s cinematographer, Miguel Vassy (the cinematographer behind Petra Costa’s lyrical debut, Elena), and its accompanying gravitas. The camera stays close to bodies, gliding and, in the most evocative scenes, crawling through the bushes, as dry crackling and Antão’s belabored breathing dominate the soundtrack. Such immersion furthers the overall effect of neither-here-nor-there, of temporal and geographic conflation.

Even more impressive is the radical freedom of Sarno’s approach. He moves swiftly within a single sequence from the dreamy hellscape of internalized evil, and from the body’s anguish in the throngs of death, to the startling crispness of the finale. The late shots capture the faces of northeasterners suddenly wearing contemporary clothes. In this closing, Antão, the historical rebel, meets his punishment in the town square, but the onlookers, thanks to the editing that collapses temporal time, are all the Brazilians of today. The moment incarnates History’s return. The tone changes from delirium to calm, then picks up again, as the northeastern onlookers start to dance in a carnivalesque sequence. It’s the second time in the film that Sarno unmasks cinema’s magic. The first comes when, in one backlands scene, the shot suddenly widens to reveal the film crew and cameras. This too suggests a temporal collapse: It is as if Antão’s ailing brain had dreamed up the crew and the film, perhaps even the spectators.

If Antão’s fate is inextricably linked to the nation’s destiny, they are both deliriums, in which the relics of one violent period are enshrined, as in the fictional Bacurau museum, only to be dusted off in the near future. And while we can take solace that Bacurauans fight the good fight, defending themselves against evil westerners and unscrupulous politicians, no such hope permeates Sertânia. As Guimarães Rosa said, sertão’s wounds are forever.

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