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Locarno Review: Sex, Coconuts and Death Distinguish Impressive Debut ‘Ventos de Agosto’

Locarno Review: Sex, Coconuts and Death Distinguish Impressive Debut 'Ventos de Agosto'

There is something of a plot in “Ventos de Agosto” (“August Winds”), the lyrical narrative debut from Brazilian documentarian Gabriel Mascaro, but its main appeal comes from a succession of quietly revealing moments: Shirley (Dandara de Morais), a young woman who lives with her ailing grandmother by the sea, lies on her back on a rickety boat under the bright sun and covers her body by using Coca-Cola as sunscreen; later, she rests on a rocky bed of coconuts with her boyfriend, coconut farmer Jeison (Geová Manoel Dos Santos), in an awkward post-coital embrace. Elsewhere, a researcher comes to town and sits motionless on the vacant beach recording the audio of the sea breeze and rushing water, absorbing the nuances of the natural world. It’s hard to blame him: “Ventos de Agosto” presents such an extraordinary portrait of rural life that its textures often overwhelm the narrative.

But despite the low key story, “Ventos de Agosto” manages to convey a degree of solitude that gradually introduces deeper themes. When Jeison discovers a skull while diving in the reefs on the hunt for octopus, and later comes across an entire corpse, his recurring attempts to bring the body to the attention of authorities in the neighboring town go nowhere. Unable to provide an address for his home (“the fourth turn” is all he can muster), Jeison confronts the casual indifference of the larger world and his minuscule role in it.

READ MORE: Exclusive: Beautiful Poster for Locarno Film Festival Entry ‘Ventos de Agosto’

Mascaro frames this burgeoning revelation with extraordinary delicacy, often capturing the character from afar, standing in the midst of tall grass. Sometimes the director ventures beyond his characters to emphasize the dominance of their surroundings: a hulking coconut tree stretching to the sky set to the sounds of the couple’s lovemaking; the clouds and ferocious rain of a tropical storm. At times, “Ventos de Agosto” may as well be a documentary about its setting that just happens to include a modicum of exposition.

Yet that perceptive approach leads to a lovely elaboration of its central themes during the 77-minute movie’s closing act, in which Jeison finally decides to take care of the corpse himself. Though neither he or Shirley possess the words to elaborate on their alienated state, their sense of mounting frustration emerges from a series of telling glances as they engage with their slow-moving world.

The actors are natural fits for the material. As Shirley, De Morais conveys a mixture of indifference and dread without a modicum of overstatement; Dos Santos gives Jeison a more precise, calculated gaze that suggests his desire to take action even though he lacks an agenda. Collectively, their restrained performances merge with the rest of the movie’s elegant visual style.

Ultimately, the movie dovetails into a thoughtful meditation on the inevitability of death. A local fisherman, claiming to have known the man whose skull Jeison discovers, reflects that residents of their village go neither to heaven or hell — just the sea. Such poetic assertions are sprinkled throughout the movie, notably from Shirley’s limited interaction with her aging grandmother, but Mascaro avoids overstatement. Much like the Mexican drama “Alamar,” which involves a father-son bonding session amidst a gorgeous coastal town, “Ventos de Agosto” uses its beachside setting as a powerful metaphor while allowing the scenery to speak for itself.

The movie arrives at a gorgeous finale that brings its main ideas to an eloquent close, though it meanders a lot along the way. Still, as a first feature, it’s a striking accomplishment that manages to use small, understated fragments to explore a bigger picture simultaneously in tune with its setting and timeless.

Grade: A-

“Ventos de Agosto” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.

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