A few days ago, while speaking at a cultural event in Paris, France, prominent Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie got into trouble with the intelligentsia community when her irritable answer to a rambling question directed her way by a guest was read as a smug dismissal of post-colonial theory. “I think it’s something that professors made up because they needed to get jobs,” she concluded, to the utter consternation of academics around the world.
In Rotterdam, about 373 kilometers- by flight- from Paris, eventual winner of the Bright Future section at the International Film Festival, Azougue Nazare, the debut feature length by Brazilian writer and director, Tiago Melo opens up a similar kind of conversation, but in a far less confrontational manner.
It is the present day and the sleepy, semi-rural town of Nazare da Mata, in the northwestern state of Pernambuco, Brazil comes alive for Jesus. This is depicted in an infectious scene set in a Pentecostal church where the congregation sings joyfully about the goodness of God’s protection before listening to the sermon of the local pastor.
The rest of the town however is caught in the grip of Maracatu fever, a colorful afro-Brazilian Samba influenced subculture involving music, dance and good natured ribbing. The Maracatu tradition which is deeply embedded in the DNA of the town’s locals goes far back to the slavery era, when slaves who were granted leadership roles within their communities by the Portuguese colonizers were inducted in elaborate ceremonies.
As more people embraced Christianity, local traditions like the Maracatu were denounced as fetish. The evangelical pastor in Azougue Nazare (played by Mestre Barachinha) represents this bloc of people. A former Maracatu master himself, his present calling involves convincing people to denounce this former preoccupation of his. He however faces his biggest personal crisis when his son stubbornly clings to the Maracatu.
These tensions between old and new, ancient and modern, and Christianity and paganism, are presented smartly and subtly in Azougue Nazare, a brisk (80 minutes), near joyful ride that follows the lives of a group of Maracatu devotees as they contend with the realities and challenges of following their passion.
To achieve authenticity and some spontaneity, Melo draws his cast from a pool of real life Maracatu performers who have had minimal acting experience. What these actors lack in technical finish, they make up for in hearty, boisterous performances that speak truth to their culture.
Valmir do Coco who plays the lead, Tiao, a devoted Maracatu player yearning to breathe within the constrictions of a suffocating marriage, is gifted with a vibrant screen presence that is usually the prerogative of the biggest movie stars. Whether playing the frustrated husband or adorned in his alter ego, Catita, a flamboyant, cross dressing figure, do Coco burns up the screen.
The screenplay by Melo and Jeronimo Lemos is uncluttered and infused with music and poetry. This is translated into the actors who then make their characters sing and dance with the crests and troughs of the plot. A supernatural element is introduced at some point but it is really the human conflicts- between the pastor and his son, a dissatisfied wife and her dense hubby, Tiao and his embittered wife, Darlene- that keep Azougue Nazare rolling along.
Tiago Melo who accepted the Bright Future prize in Portuguese with a highly political statement drawing attention to tensions in in his home country is a lot more nuanced with his debut film as he makes use of traditional conflicts to explore personal relationships in a post-colonial environment that is still very much in the evolution process.
It is a tale as old as time that Melo tells, but this particular iteration is simply irresistible.
This piece was first published on the official blog of the International Film Festival, Rotterdam