CINEMA, ASPIRINS AND VULTURES (BRAZIL / 2005)
To many, Marcelo Gomes' Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures (Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus) may feel too good to be true. After all, this quiet, contemplative and unassuming road-movie unfolds over a few days and nights starting in the August of 1942, when most of the world was gripped by the Second World War. However, unlike the vast majority of films set during that time-period, war never really enters the picture here, at least not in the conventional sense, and even when it does, it does so tangentially. In addition, the film is surprisingly devoid of emphatic rhetorical gestures, focusing instead on the slow-burning consumption of life at its most fundamental. (Or, in other words, "For those looking for a smart alternative to The Motorcycle Diaries'  left-wing hand job, this movie delivers in unexpected ways" [The Village Voice].)
The fact that the film takes place in a poor, draught-ridden Brazilian sertão (Portuguese term for backcountry) certainly plays a hand in its composition. The dusty backroads of this once prosperous northeastern region only seem capable of guiding one back to the westerns of Cinema Novo giant Glauber Rocha. No surprise, then, that our protagonists -- Johann (Peter Ketnath), a German itinerant salesman working out of a truck for a pharmaceutical company, and Ranulpho (João Miguel), a hitchhiker heading for Rio who stays on as his assistant -- start digging one right in the middle of a Podunk town in order to setup a screen for their gig, which involves charming the provincials with promo reels of Johann's "miracle drug" (hint: the title). "With this you can sell Bibles to the devil," Ranulpho once muses. But since even the war can't get out this far, it's hard to say if Lucifer ever will. (According to the filmmaker, these people of Picote, Paraíba, were in fact experiencing cinema for the very first time.)
Pacifist by nature, Johann is neither a saint nor a parasite. He's simply doing what he has to do to survive. And so is Ranulpho, even though he not only looks down on his counterparts but wants to get the heck away from this godforsaken place as quickly as possible (and it's hard to blame him). Much to Ranulpho's chagrin, Johann picks up another traveler or two along the way. One is a young woman who wants to distance herself from the misogyny that has a tendency to fester in such places. (Take a deep breath, Cláudio Assis, that'd serve you well.) The atmosphere inside the vehicle slightly changes once she gets onboard. Her presence could've derailed the duo (not the mention the film itself), but nothing of that nature comes to fruition. Johann tries to impress her with his moving images filled with happy, satisfied people, which only ends up furthering her grief. Next morning, she simply walks off; her destiny lies elsewhere. Gomes faithfully acknowledges the act in a single shot.
"Johann and Ranulpho represent our own dreams of happiness," he has said. "Our desire to find a road for our own lives." Gomes, who got the idea for this film from his uncle's stories about selling the drug in Brazil in the '40s, worked with his contemporary Karim Ainouz to flesh out his themes and motifs. (Gomes, by the way, was one of the writers on Ainouz's acclaimed Madame Satã .) They thankfully did away with any possible variations of the ripe to be exploited "odd couple" scenario; and the hint of impending violence fizzles away in the scorching sun. Speaking of which, the blinding daylight is almost metaphysically captured with over-exposed, bleached out stock, usually employed to add grittiness to the favela-set movies (dare I mention the name of yet another mediocre Berlinale winner?!) This process only seems to have helped in distilling the film down to its essence: man, his dreams and, of course, vultures.
[B- = Above Average / B = Good / B+ = Very Good]