Scorched Earth

VIDAS SECAS aka BARREN LIVES (1963), a Brazilian film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos.

You don’t have to believe in climate change to experience and understand the devastating effects of a drought. The northeastern part of Brazil is no stranger to this condition which has plagued the region for decades yet people continue to live there. If you are a wealthy landowner, you can survive the seasonal hardships but if you are a poor migrant worker, life is a constant struggle. Vidas Secas (English title: Barren Lives, 1963), directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, is the portrait of a family of four and their dog as they wander the arid deserts and sun-baked landscapes of northwestern Brazil in search of work, water and food. Set in 1941 and covering a two-year period in their lives, the film is considered a landmark work in the Cinema Novo movement, which emerged in the late fifties and focused on marginalized communities and people, often using non-professional actors, real settings and black and white cinematography in the manner of Italian Neorealism. 

A migrant family of four look for work during a horrific drought in northeastern Brazil in BARREN LIVES aka Vidas Secas (1963).

Director Santos creates a you-are-there point of view as the hand-held camerawork of Luiz Carlos Barreto and Jose Rosa plunks the viewer down in a world of dusty roads, dead trees and scrubland and mudholes. When the film opens, we see some moving figures in the distance, crossing the desert plains. The travelers are Fabiano (Atila Iorio), an itinerant farm worker, his wife Vitoria (Maria Ribeiro), their two sons (played by real life brothers, Gilvan and Genivaldo Lima) and their dog Baleia, who proves to be the best hunter-gatherer in the group. They have been traveling for days looking for food, shelter and work and their prospects are so bad that Vitoria strangles their pet parrot and cooks it for dinner. (This scene, of course, begs the question – what was a starving migrant family doing with a pet parrot?).

Baleia, the family dog, and the youngest child of a migrant worker, rest in the shade from the punishing sun of northeastern Brazil in BARREN LIVES (1963).

When the family stumbles upon a ranch, their luck improves and Fabiano finds work as a cattle herder for the owner. Life on the ranch is a regiment of none-stop physical labor and hardships but it is better than being homeless and a beggar. Unfortunately, the owner turns out to be unscrupulous and Fabiano is given less money than he expected for his work. Still, the family tries to make the best of it and attends a festival in the local village, where Fabiano is enticed into a card game by a corrupt policeman. He loses his wages and is then accused of insulting the policeman. Fabiano winds up in jail and is badly beaten by the head cop but is released the following day due to the intervention of his boss.

A corrupt policeman creates problems for a migrant family in the 1963 Brazilian drama BARREN LIVES, a key film in the Cinema Novo movement.

With no money left, Fabiano has no choice but to continue to work for slave wages on the ranch but the drought has become so extreme that some of the cattle begin to die for lack of water. In desperation, the family packs up with their few belongings and head off into the desert again, disappearing into the distance in a reverse take of the opening scene. Santos’ film, which looks and feels more like a docudrama than a fiction feature, serves as a powerful example of how the drought in northeastern Brazil turned poor working class peasants into migrants and eventually forced them to move to the cities where they ended up in the slums. There might have been more employment prospects there but the migrants were still at the lower rung of society and completely abandoned by their government.

Fabiano (Atila Iorio, right) begs the ranch owner for a job while his family waits nearby in BARREN LIVES (1963).

Admittedly Barren Lives is a tough watch but adventurous cinephiles should find Santos’ film absorbing for capturing the details of the day-to-day lives of people who are braving extraordinary challenges in order to live. The casual cruelty and violence that marks their existence never feels exploitive and only increases our empathy for these forgotten people.

Fabiano (Atila Iorio) prepares to put the sick family dog out of its misery in the 1963 Brazilian film BARREN LIVES.

Although Fabiano is uneducated and easily duped by others, he never forsakes his own moral code or succumbs to the dark side. When he is invited by his former cell mate to join a gang of leftist guerrillas, he refuses for the sake of his family and because he has no political ideology. In another telling scene, Fabiano encounters the corrupt policeman who framed him, lost and wandering in a thicket. At first, Fabiano raises his machete as if to kill him but changes his mind, letting his potential victim escape. If nothing else, Fabiano still clings to his humanity and soldiers on.

Vitoria (Maria Ribeiro) questions the meaning of life as she struggles to survive as a migrant in BARREN LIVES (1963), a key film in the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement.

The same is true of the long suffering Vitoria, who often fantasizes about having a real bed instead of one made of dried twigs and branches. Toward the end of Barren Lives, she says to Fabiano as they head for the city, “Why can’t we live like real people, people who sleep in leather beds? Why do we have to live like the wretched, running in the wild like animals?” Even more sympathetic are the two young brothers who already sense the sort of future awaiting them. The one bright spot in their lives is their dog Baleia and when she becomes sick and has to be put down, her demise is as upsetting as the climax in Old Yeller. The final scenes of her being stalked and shot by Fabiano are truly haunting and will stay with you long after the film is over.

Baleia tries to hide from her owner behind a tree because he is going to shoot her in the 1963 Brazilian film BARREN LIVES.

Based on the 1938 novel Vidas Secas by Graciliano Ramos, a Brazilian novelist who often focused on poor people living in the desolate northeastern desert, Barren Lives has often been compared to John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. However, Ford’s movie looks almost romanticized compared to Santos’ bleak depiction of people dealing with a similar environmental crisis. Part of the film’s effectiveness is the director’s use of amateur actors from the region as well as the use of natural sounds (but no music score) to emulate their world. The opening and closing sound of an oxcart wheel grinding slowly has an eerie, high-pitched droning that sets an ominous tone from the start. And the harsh, unfiltered sunlight that permeates everything adds an oppressive atmosphere to Santos’ vision of hell on earth.

Fabiano (Atila Iorio, right) and his family dress up in their Sunday best to attend a village festival that ends badly in BARREN LIVES (1963).

Barren Lives won the OCIC Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964 (it tied with Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – talk about an example of contrasting cinematic styles!) and Nelson Pereira dos Santos was also nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film was considered the first important film to emerge from the Cinema Novo movement and it was soon joined by Glauber Rocha’s equally influential Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (English title: Black God, White Devil, 1964), which told the story of a poor farmer who becomes an outlaw after killing a local land baron. Similar in subject matter and setting to Barren Lives, both films were critical of the society that created such an unequal hierarchy of money and power but did so in an accessible narrative form without resorting to didactic or political posturing.

The Brazilian film poster for BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL (1964).

The Cinema Novo movement lasted until around 1972 and produced a number of significant films such as Ruy Guerra’s Os Fuzis (The Guns, 1964), in which villagers are oppressed by both the military and the religious fanaticism of their region, Paulo Cesar Saraceni’s O Desafio (1966), the tale of a journalist trying to navigate the military dictatorship of Brazil, Antonio das Mortes (1968), Glauber Rocha’s sequel to Black God, White Devil, and Como Era Gostoso o Meu Frances (English Title: How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, 1971), Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s sly ethnographic satire of an encounter between a French explorer and the Tupinambas Indians in 1594.

As you can imagine, the Cinema Novo movement was not popular with the Brazilian government and Barren Lives was banned from screenings after Brazil’s 1964 military coup. Santos would later state in an interview that “Cinema Novo was never a monolithic or one-dimensional film movement. Rather, each director brought his own style, thematic concerns, and social vision to play in his films, resulting in a diverse and heterogeneous movement with a common-core belief in the need to transform Brazilian society and the important role that cinema could play in that process.”

Brazilian director Nelson Pereira dos Santos – Foto Sebastião Marinho / Agência O Globo – negativo 120834

Santos also shared an amusing anecdote about one of the producers of Barren Lives, who recruited most of the cast from the area in which they filmed. “He also found Baleia the dog, one of the main characters of the film,” Santos said, “and who had a ticket paid for by the French to go to the Cannes Festival. I adopted the conditioning method of the Russian physician Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936): for months, the dog could not eat anything before the filming, to perform the role – but Baleia would leave where she was tied up, turn the corner, and go into the shade to sleep. It was when I put my hand on her belly, and it was full. Then I discovered that it was Jofre [the producer] who was giving food to the dog.”

Life as a migrant is hard on Vitoria (Maria Ribeiro) and her two sons in the 1963 Brazilian drama BARREN LIVES, directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos.

Barren Lives was originally released on VHS and DVD by New Yorker Films but the company has lost the rights to many of the movies in its library after shutting down in the fall of 2010 and the future fate of Barren Lives is unknown. You can stream the film in an acceptable print with subtitles on Youtube but a blu-ray restoration of the film is long overdue.

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