Vidas Secas - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Barren Lives)

Brazil, 1963

Director: Nelson Pereira dos Santos

Production: Produções Cinematográficas L. C. Barreto, Herbert Richers and Nelson Pereira dos Santos; 35mm; running time: 103 minutes. Released August l963 in Rio de Janeiro. Filmed in Alagoas.

Producer: Luiz Carlos Barreto, Herbert Richers, and Nelson Pereira dos Santos; screenplay: Nelson Pereiras dos Santos, from the book by Gracialano Ramos; photography: José Rosa and Luis Carlos Barreto; editor: Nello Melli; sound: Geraldo José; music: Leonard Alencar.

Cast: Átila Iório ( Fabiano ), Maria Ribeiro ( Sinhá Vitória ), Orlando Macedo ( Soldado Amarelo ), Jofre Soares ( Coronel ); Gilvan Lima e Genivaldo Lima ( The boys ), and the dog Baleia.



Rocha, Glauber, Revisão Critica do Cinema Brasileiro , Editora Civilização Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1963.

Ramos, Graciliano, Vidas secas , Livraria Martins Editora, 32 edition, São Paulo, Brazil, 1974.

Bernadet, Jean-Claude, Brasil em Tempo de Cinema , Editora Paz e Terra, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 1977.

Rocha, Glauber, Revolução do Cinema Novo , Alhambra/Embrafilme, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1981.

Johnson, Randal, and Robert Stam, "The Cinema of Hunger" and "Nelson Pereira dos Santos Vidas Secas," Brazilian Cinema , Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982

Johnson, Randal, Cinema Novo X5, Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Film , University of Texas Press, Austin, 1984.

Salem, Helena, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, o Sonho Possível do Cinema Brasileiro , Editora Nova Fronteira, 1987.


Vianna, A. Moniz, Correio da Manhã (Rio de Janeiro), 22 August 1963.

Azeredo, Ely, Correio da Manhã (Rio de Janeiro), 27/28 August 1963.

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Variety (New York), 25 Decemeber 1963.

Azeredo, Ely, Tribuna da Imprensa (Rio de Janeiro), 6 April 1964.

Estado de São Paulo , 9 May 1964.

Lefèvre, R., Cinéma (Paris), November 1965.

Petris, M., Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1965.

Viany, Alex, Publicação do Departamento de Divulgação da Federação de Cineclubes do Rio de Janeiro , March 1967.

Canby, Vincent, New York Times , 6 June 1969.

Conrad, R., Film Quarterly (Berkeley), no. 3, 1971.

Johnson, Randal, "Vidas Secas and the Politics of Filmic Adaptation," in Ideologies and Literature III , number l5, January-March 1981.

Schild, Susana, "A Arte de Recriar," Revista IBM (Rio de Janeiro), September 1984.

Augusto, Sérgio, Folha de São Paulo (São Paulo), Nelson Pereira, o pai do Cinema Novo, 22 June 1987.

Schild, Susana, Jornal do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro), Nelson por Nelson, 22 June 1987.

* * *

Nelson Pereira dos Santos is rightly considered the father of Brazil's Cinema Novo movement. With his first two films, Rio 40 graus (1956) and Rio Zona Norte (1957) influenced by Italian neorealism, he started to sow the seeds of a film industry with a social conscience, resolving to portray the lifestyles of the country's most disadvantaged populations. His fifth film, Vidas Secas (Barren Lives) , acclaimed at Cannes in 1964, together with Deus e O Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil) , by Glauber Rocha, firmly established the Cinema Novo as an innovative trend in cinematography.

That said, the relevance and eloquence of Vidas Secas transcend the limits of the Cinema Novo movement. Notwithstanding its distinctly regional placement in the dry lands of Northeastern Brazil and its setting in the 1940s, it shares the timeless universal drama of poverty-stricken landless people who are obliged to move to the big cities in the hopes of a better life. For its piercingly realistic portrayal of this universal problem, Vidas Secas takes its place of honour not only as a masterpiece of Brazilian filmmaking, but on the international scene as well.

The film opens with an extreme long shot showing a stretch of desolate and arid countryside under a beating sun. From the distance a couple, their two children, and their dog slowly approach, heralded by the grating noise of the wheel of an ox-drawn wagon. There is nothing in this scene—the countryside, the light, the obvious poverty of the protagonists, the exasperatingly grating noise of the wagon wheel—to soothe the eyes or ears of the viewer. Its raw realism is transmitted quite naturally and without apology. The economy of the opening shot of Vidas Secas —which will persist throughout the narrative—reflects the perfect harmony between the style of the production and what it sought to portray. It is, in all senses, a frugal film and therein lies its strength.

Although the intention with Vidas Secas was to join the national debate on the subject of agrarian reform, Nelson Pereira dos Santos had no need of didacticisms or political language in order to get his message across and, likewise, discarded any sentimentality in the film's approach to the problem. He based the film on the Graciliano Ramos novel by the same name, which although written in 1938 remained topical in 1964—as it does, in dramatic terms, thirty years on. Among the film's merits is its fidelity to the spirit of Graciliano Ramos's text, with its concise style and literary qualities. (A return to the writings of Graciliano Ramos would yield another great moment in the career of Nelson Pereira dos Santos with Memórias do Cárcere , in 1983.)

Vidas Secas follows two years in the life of a family whose poverty and limitations are extreme, both in terms of their ability to express themselves and even in terms of their ability to survive. The family consists of Sinhá Vitória (Maria Ribeiro) and Fabiano (Átila Iório), two children (acted by the juveniles Gilvan and Genivaldo), and Baleia (whale), the dog. All they possess they carry on their backs, as they search for a little patch of land on which to settle. They come upon an abandoned farm, where Fabiano will work as a cow hand for just over a year. In this time, the family will experience some small advances and many humiliating set-backs, mainly due to Fabiano. Due to his ingenuousness and lack of understanding, Fabiano will be exploited by the owner of the farm, and forbidden by the "authorities" to sell his pathetic produce. Goaded by a soldier, Fabiano loses his money at gambling, and ends up in prison, where he is beaten. His only way out would be to join a band of outlaws, at the invitation of a cell mate. This he refuses to do: he is a good man, and wants only to live in peace with his family.

Surrender to social rules that are unfair or nonexistent is allied to impotence in the face of the ceaselessly blazing sun, drying up the land and the rivers, producing hunger and thirst, killing people and animals. To portray this desolate scenario, Nelson Pereira dos Santos sought to catch "the true light of the Northeast." Filming took place under the most natural conditions possible, with no filters, using, as the director explained, "God's light." The resulting over-exposure creates a suffocating atmosphere, which on several occasions seems to blind not only the protagonists but the viewer as well.

With authenticity and frugality as its touchstones, the camera— often hand held and subjective—reveals the daily existence of a family that can never be inserted into a "normal" social context, seen, most of the time, through the eyes of its members—including the dog. In its admirable austerity, Vidas Secas is a pungent treatise on aridity. The aridity is in the landscapes, in the hopelessness of the family's prospects, and in the relationships between the members of the family. It is present also in cruel details, such as in the scene in which Sinhá Vitória strangles the family parrot before cooking it for food, remarking, "he couldn't even talk."

Ironically, the lack of dialogue is one of the features of the film, true to Graciliano Ramos's novel. On several occasions, Sinhá Vitória and Fabiano say that they don't live as "real people" do. The woman dreams of exchanging her bed of dried twigs for one of leather, a bed such as "real people" might have. In a rare attempt at dialogue as they sit by the campfire, Sinhá Vitória and Fabiano actually talk to themselves more than to each other. They rarely touch each other, and their smiles and expressions of affection are directed not at each other but at the dog, which in a further irony, is treated in a "human" way in such an inhuman setting. (The very lifelike scene in which the dog dies inflamed the animal protection societies during the Cannes Festival of 1964. To prove that no murder had taken place, Baleia—a bitch, in fact—was taken to the Festival and accorded star treatment.)

The children are also largely silent, except for one of the boys who repeatedly asks "what is hell?" "It is a hot place, where people go when they are condemned," replies his mother. With extreme sobriety and maturity, Nelson Pereira dos Santos showed that hell was in the dry lands of the Northeast, and is inhabited by thousands of Fabianos and Sinhás Vitória, who make for the big cities in order to become "real people." They continue to do so to this day.

—Susana Schild

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