(2011)2.5Nathan SouthernThis docudrama from director Cao Hamburger (The Year My Parents Went on Vacation) and producer Fernando Meirelles (City of God) has a great subject. Spanning from the early '40s to the early '60s, it reconstructs one of the seminal events to happen in Brazil in the 20th century -- the successful efforts of three brothers, Claudio, Orlando, and Leonardo Villas Boas (João Miguel, Felipe Camargo, and Caio Blat, respectively), to secure a permanent reserve in the middle of the rain forest for several indigenous tribes, including the Xingu and the Kreen-Akarore. The siblings -- two of whom were justly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1970s -- fought governmental bureaucracy and effectively saved the tribal groups from total annihilation in the face of impending industrialization.
To Hamburger's credit, his picture is elegantly lit, framed, and mounted, and it's beautifully acted by the central ensemble. And its heart obviously lies in the right place. Nevertheless, it comes off as dramatically inert and unconvincing. Hamburger co-authored the script with Elena Soarez and Anna Muylaert, and for some strange reason, the narrative simply doesn't build; the movie leaps from one key event in the timeline to the next without establishing the necessary connecting threads -- this feels less like drama than a giant, reverent picture book of important scenes from Brazilian history. Even when the movie builds up to a massive set piece, it fails to provide us with any specifics. Hamburger's favorite device involves giving us a clear indication of what is about to transpire, followed by shifting focus to literally blur the action, then swiftly cutting to another event that happens weeks, months, or years later -- as in a potentially mesmerizing development that has the Xingu people waging war on Brazilian government contractors. This cinema interruptus doesn't serve the movie well; we scratch our heads in frustration over the picture's apparent laziness, lack of budget, or both.
Another central issue involves the failure of the screenwriters to clearly establish the personalities and transitions of the individual Villas Boas brothers. The fleeting glimpses that we do get -- as in a tantalizing substory about Claudio striking up an affair with a native Xingu girl -- catch our interest while onscreen, but then fizzle away and feel woefully underdeveloped. We know we're in trouble when, midway through the story, a tragedy befalls one of the brothers and we're barely aware of which man it is; these guys feel interchangeable to us. If the filmmakers had more carefully and intelligently established the trio's individual identities and character arcs over the picture's time span of more than 20 years, it would have made the movie exponentially more involving.
There exists a long tradition in film of exploring what happens in the wake of a culture clash between men of European ancestry and natives who have inhabited an area for millennia. Two of the best known, John Boorman's The Emerald Forest (1985) and Hector Babenco's At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), are far more interesting than Xingu and help illuminate its deficits. Each of those prior pictures has a deeper, philosophical undercurrent: The Boorman film plunges into pagan metaphysics and old-world black magic, while the Babenco one rests on a philosophy of postmodern deconstructionism and posits Western religion as a malignant force. Xingu lacks that sort of dimension -- it simply comes off as a limp adventure story about a few good-hearted guys who launched a crusade to save their neighbors. You keep looking for something more meaningful and profound, but the movie keeps sifting through your fingers.
Cao Hamburger's period drama Xingu tells the story of three brothers who, while trekking through Brazil in 1943, discover a native people known as the Xingu. The threesome live for a while with the Xingu, and after their new friends suffer numerous deaths during a flu epidemic the brothers work to keep them healthy and preserve their culture. Xingu screened at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.