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BERLINALE 2022 Panorama

Review: Fogaréu


- BERLINALE 2022: Brazil’s Flávia Neves examines her country’s colonial heritage in this supernatural thriller

Review: Fogaréu
Bárbara Colen in Fogaréu

Bonfire” is the literal translation of the Portuguese title Fogaréu [+see also:
film profile
. And while at some point there will be something aflame, there is also a fire coming from within this movie – kindled by the desperation of an adopted woman as she strives to find out more about her past. The film, which is also the brutal reckoning of director Flávia Neves with Brazil’s colonial past, had its world premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlinale.

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White, hooded figures march across the main square of a little town in north-western Goiás. Torches are burning, and the drums set the pace of the procession. This is not a scene out of a KKK or white extremist gathering in the USA, but rather the celebration of a local tradition, as the viewer soon learns. However, towards the end of the movie, one must ask whether these are ultimately not the same thing.

Entering the action from the opposite direction to the procession is Fernanda (Bárbara Colen). The symbolism is immediately clear: here is a woman who will oppose everything that this town stands for, who moves in the opposite direction to the masses, squeezing past the people standing in her way. Fernanda has returned to the city of her birth after the death of her adoptive mother. Her mum’s homosexuality had once driven her out of the suffocating religious corset of her home, but now she is back with her ashes in an urn.

Fernanda’s family, a prudish, upper-class, white group of snobs, welcome her but sense that nothing good can come of this. “You’re still a hippie,” Aunt Arlette (Fernanda Vianna) says as she greets her. It is not only Fernanda’s obvious native and African heritage that sets her apart from the group. The news that Fernanda plans to scatter her mother’s ashes in a nearby stream, rather than bury her, sends shockwaves through the family. What is she really doing here, Uncle Antônio (Eucir de Souza) wants to know.

While she did initially come with the intention of paying her last respects to her mother, Cecilia, and looking into her inheritance, Fernanda soon gets sidetracked by another mystery that seems to be enveloping the town: its vast amount of intellectually disabled people, amongst them her family’s hired help Missy (Nena Inoue) and Joana (Vilminha Chaves). The family insists that they are doing these people a favour, despite them working in slave-like conditions and being spoken of in terms of ownership.

Fernanda, whose unknown biological parents came from Goiás, too, decides that she wants to know where she came from and why she escaped the fate of domestic servitude herself. Also, why does this otherwise uptight community seem to have such a big heart when it comes to adopting and nurturing orphans? Fernanda starts to investigate with the help of some of these local “fools”. But her uncle, in particular, is not pleased with her efforts to dig up what he wants to remain hidden.

The inherited historical guilt of a country. The inhumane treatment of one’s fellow humans. The search for an identity that colonial imperialism once stole. Neves dives deep into the still-burning hotspots of Brazilian history. Unresolved guilt and the blind need to gloss over the dark patches jump out at her protagonist from every corner. The introduction of a native tribe being robbed of their rightful land and water is only one aspect of the tale: Neves goes deeper, finding parallels with human colonial exploitation in the practices and traditions of society’s modern counterparts.

As Neves pokes around in the past, she imbues this exploration with the mysterious magical powers of those deemed to be on the lowest rung of society, and that’s fine. If anything, the supernatural aspects of the story make it more interesting. However, what makes the movie less impactful in its final stretch is the fact that the script succumbs to predictable tropes and unnecessary “shocker” moments. This cheapens the effect of the story more than drawing attention to its timely message: the need to break free from antiquated structures in order to have any kind of liveable future.

Fogaréu was produced by France’s Blue Monday Productions and Brazil’s Bananeira Filmes.

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