March 7, 2008

Suburban Angst in Brazil … “Alice’s House”

Reviewed by E.A. Barrera

“I’ve always wanted to tell a story that was simple, without death, without heroes, nothing, except ordinary people, like you and I.”

Chico Teixeira

Documentary film maker Chico Teixeira of Brazil has a marvelous knack for drawing out the drama of ordinary people. In his previous films, he has examined everything from the shanty town poverty of Brazil in 1989’s “Favelas”; to the treatment of the elderly in 1991’s “Velhice”, to his magnificent 1995 work - “Criaturas Que Nasciam em Segredo” (Creatures Born in Secret) – a documentary about five dwarfs from São Paulo, which drew inspiration from the fabled universe of the buffoons of the Italian Renaissance and sweetly explored conditions of those in the shadows of life – the deformed, the sick or socially outcast.

This ability to tell real life stories in a dramatic fashion is the talent of a great documentary film maker and Teixeira has been amply rewarded through the years for his efforts, including winning numerous awards at Brazilian, Spanish and Latin American film festivals.

But in his first attempt at fiction, Teixeira tackles the subject matter with the same sort of journalistic techniques and attitudes a documentary film maker will employ. And while the acting and the over-all story of a woman seeking relief from the daily grind of her life is well played, the ultimate impact of the lack of cinematic drama is a plodding story that never really captures the heart of the audience.

Alice (Carla Ribas) in the bus.

“The film is basically about a woman’s everyday life in which she alludes herself and makes the same mistakes repeatedly. It’s a film with small actions, intimate internal movements, with daily frustrations, nothing is safe, and nobody knows where they go in that house, it’s an enormous emptiness,” said Teixeira in describing his “Alice’s House.” “I would also like to talk about the pettiness in relationships, about very fragile family ties, which deteriorate and break up at any moment.”

While the film clearly shows this condition with intimate detail, there is a deafening lack of artistic manipulation that is as much a technique for creating mood and atmosphere as acting and direction. Teixeira understands the need for background and tries to fill this space with constant references to talismans, superstitions, lucky charms, and radio shows broadcasting spiritual renewal like so many charlatans from evangelical television. His characters in this film are people worn down from life and seeking something that will make their days shine brighter.

But his inexperience in dramatic fiction is evident early on when confusion about the relationship between the central character – the mother (played succinctly by Carla Ribbas) – and the other characters in the film are unclear and often muddled.

“I had never been to film school. Everything I’ve learned has been in practice. In my documentaries, I never used a conventional script, but rather the intention of a script, with questions and images in my head,” said Teixeira. “So I decided to attend the School of Communication and Arts of the University of Sao Paulo for a semester, where as a listener, I followed Roberto Moreira’s script classes. It was very good and I learned many things. I had written a long treatment about the story of “Alice’s House”, but didn’t know what to do with it.”

What Teixeira ends up doing is producing a work of fiction in pseudo-documentary form. There is no musical soundtrack or background to suggest mood. The camera follows the actors in intense close-ups, with journalistic immediacy but very little seduction or intrigue. It is as if someone has placed cameras at key spots in the life of an average Brazilian family and like some modern reality television show, simply follows the action. The characters are neither particularly appealing or disagreeable – though there is a tendency through out the film to portray the lives of the women in the film as being victims of calculating and sexually cold men.

In the end there is very little heart to the film. Like a well-made documentary, “Alice’s House” is intriguing from an intellectual perspective. But without the music, the intensity of the emotions are left entirely within the intellect, and this ends up being disappointing for a film that with a little icing on it’s cake, could have been far more moving.

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