Barren Lives, an adaptation of a beloved Brazilian novel, is ultimately a simple story; an impoverished cowhand (Átila Iório) leads his family in a long journey to remote farm in search of work, various complications prevent them from saving money, and they give up and leave again.
The simplicity was a perfect choice for the growing “Cinema Novo” movement in Brazil. Cinema Novo is a Brazilian take on the then-popular French “New Wave” movement; and, if you think about it, both were probably inspired by the Italian neo-realism of the 1950s. All tend to focus on “realism” on screen – focusing on ordinary people, paying attention to how people actually speak, and in many cases even casting non-actors. Cinema Novo in particular presented itself as an alternative to the big splashy musical costume pictures the mainstream studios were producing in Brazil; they focused on the starker, grittier reality the poorer people in the country struggled with, and frequently called attention to issues of social inequality.
The film was also a close adaptation of a popular book (also called Barren Lives ) from the late 1930s; unfortunately, it may have followed a bit too slavishly. I didn’t look into the film’s history until after watching it, and struggled a bit with the film’s sparse dialogue. When they did speak, characters tended to repeat themselves a lot (the mother in the family, played by Maria Ribeiro, spoke so frequently of wanting to buy a “leather bed” that I started to grit my teeth each time it came up). The many shots of the relentless sun baking down through the trees were effective at first, but towards the end they started to sour on me. It wasn’t until I read about the book that I realized that this repetition and sparseness was a feature of the book as well – so this was a definite feature for the book’s fans, but for me it was a little baffling.
But the repetition is a small quibble, and overall was infrequent. Other moments shocked me with their rawness; the very first line of dialogue is something the mother mutters to herself, after having to kill the family’s pet parrot to feed everyone. As she’s plucking its feathers, she simply observes, “it couldn’t talk anyway.”
Overall this was a stark glimpse into the starker lives many in Brazil’s more impoverished regions were leading, and that was precisely the point.