Daniela Thomas’ exquisitely painful Vazante, her feature debut as a director after several collaborations with Walter Salles, opens in muddy gloom, as the bare feet of chained black slaves shuffle through a jungle downpour. It’s the 1820s. The slaves’ master, gruff beardo Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), rides a horse, his eyes as wild in their conviction as John Brown’s in a John Steuart Curry painting; mules bear supplies. As they trudge along, Vazante cuts to their destination, a bedroom at Antonio’s plantation, where we see in close-up flesh as drenched as that of the travelers: It’s the wife of that master, in labor, being exhorted to push by a slave woman on the plantation. Neither wife nor child will survive.
Soon, the rain has stopped, and Antonio’s band rests beside a stream. The master, perturbed, demands a slave bring him a chest of linens that they’ve been toting. Antonio swears at the discovery that the bedclothes — new ones, a gift for the wife he doesn’t know has died — inside are sodden and soiled. He insists that his slaves clean them, now, before pressing on: “It must be clean and white when we get there,” he says.
Thomas’ film studies, among other horrors of plantation life, that master’s destructive zeal for purity, his conviction that this life he’s built on mud and blood, on slave labor in Brazil’s prohibitive Diamantina Mountains, can, with judicious cleaning of its surfaces, prove godly. Upon discovering the wife’s death, Antonio shreds those now-spotless bedclothes; then he promptly marries Beatriz, the deceased’s 12-year-old sister (Luana Nastas), a young woman who looks justifiably terrified at Antonio’s declaration that he will never again leave home. When he at last, inevitably, takes her to bed, he tells her not to be afraid, which from him comes out as command rather than reassurance.
Beatriz is given to lassitude, to youthful longing — we watch her restive wanderings through the big house, touching her hand to wood panels, to bedposts. The only thing that shakes her from the brooding idyll of her days is the charge in the air between her and Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), the young son of one of the plantation’s slaves. When they grin at each other, the film’s oppressiveness lifts, for a breath. The irony: Before Antonio can bring himself to bed Beatriz, he demands sex with Feliciana, Virgilio’s mother. Perhaps inevitably, he gets her pregnant. Also inevitable: Eventually Beatriz is pregnant, too. The final reels build with agonizing suspense to the revelation of Beatriz’s baby’s race, to how Antonio, who professes to believe so strongly in the clean and white, will respond to his possible cuckolding.
Thomas, working from a script she wrote with Beto Amaral, takes her time teasing out this drama. Much of the film’s first hour is given to conflicts between classes of slaves, those from Africa and those native to Brazil, and some black-on-black violence is scarifying. (She makes clear that this was a brutal life, but she does not rub our faces in acts of brutality.) She’s attentive to season and landscapes, to toil and idle hours. Antonio spends lots of time staring, unblinklingly, at nothing from his hammock; scenes of slave women working in the shadows of a kitchen have an immersive quality, a sense that we’re watching a regular and ongoing process rather than some scant seconds staged for the camera. There’s no music, just the sounds of birds, the buzz of bugs, the spatter of rain and the clink of chains.
The film is shot in a silvery black-and-white (by cinematographer Inti Briones), with an interest in the epic scale of the mountain locations: Here are great ridges and towering reeds, trains of livestock humping across the horizon. But the photography is not just beautiful. Thomas’ people, rendered colorless, look on-screen quite like the people we've seen in 19th-century Daguerreotypes and early photography, in some ways recognizable to us but in others entirely unknowable. With Vazante, Thomas imagines, convincingly, with Faulknerian reach and density, the details of those lives, what being them might have felt like.