Friday, July 13, 2012

Premiere Brazil ’12: Matraga

Those who know their Brazilian cinema and literature will know Augusto Esteves, a.k.a. Matraga, is one bad cat.  The protagonist of João Guimarães Rosa’s short story, adapted for the screen in 1965 by Roberto Santos, made a triumphant return, sweeping most of the prizes at the 2011 Rio International Film Festival, proving Brazilians appreciate a rugged convert.  Once again, he sees the light in Vinícius Coimbra’s Matraga (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 edition of Premiere Brazil!, now underway at MoMA.

Better at drinking and whoring than farming, Esteves has made his share of enemies, most definitely including Major Consilva.  Eleven of the local land baron’s gunslingers got the jump on him out in the wild grasslands.  It was a decent idea, but they did not bring enough men.  They will learn from this mistake.  Using the incident as a pretext to banish his wife and child, Esteves continues his reckless hedonism, pressing his luck.  Beaten and branded, Esteves is left for dead after pitching head first into rocky gorge.  However, a devout elderly couple nurses his broken body back to health and puts his spirit on the path of righteous.

Though sometimes tempted to give into his inner demons, Esteves holds to the Christian faith of his adopted parents, living with them in anonymous isolation.  Eventually, the powerful landlord Joaozinho Bem-Bem and his extra-legal posse of enforcers ride into Esteves’ village, like a Brazilian John Tunstall and the Regulators, hoping to skirt a company of legitimate government troops.  Much to their surprise, Matraga receives them in the spirit of Christian hospitality, welcoming them into his home.  Recognizing a kindred spirit beneath Esteves’ pious exterior, Bem-Bem feels an instant rapport with the reformed killer.  Indeed, their fates will be intertwined.

Matraga is often billed as a Brazilian spaghetti western and that is fair to an extent.  Yet, Esteves is as much Paul on the Road to Damascus as the Man with No Name.  In truth, it is quite a solid film, but it will be tricky finding the right audience for it beyond Brazilian cinema showcases, such as MoMA’s Premiere.  This is a brooding film that treats issues of faith with deadly seriousness.  Still, when its go time, everyone gets down to business as the bullets fly.

Glowering impressively, João is convincingly fierce and conflicted as Esteves.  He handles the fight scenes quite credibly, but most importantly his depiction of the character’s hard won new faith is grittily realistic and in no way caricatured.  Nonetheless, José Wilker earns most of the film’s style points as the smoothly lethal Bem-Bem.

Clearly, Coimbra and cinematographer Lula Carvalho were taken with the wide open vistas of the Minais Gerais countryside, giving it the full John Ford treatment.  Yet, what is most notable is the manner the film stays true to the expectations of the western genre and the integrity of Esteves’ post-conversion character.  That is quite a trick.  Partly a moody, unhurried art film and partly a violent western shootout, is recommended fairly strongly for patrons of Brazilian cinema and those drawn to dark morality tales when it screens this coming Tuesday (7/17) and the following Sunday (7/22) as part of the tenth annual Premiere Brazil! at MoMA.