Brazillian cinema has a long history of social responsibility and examining social problems. Going back to the revolutionary Cinema Novo movement of the ‘60s, problems of class, poverty, and urban living have long been at the forefront of Brazilian filmmaking. More recent films like the Elite Squad series, City of God and Bus 174 that have garnered attention in the West seem to be showing a renewed interest by Brazilian filmmakers in the problems of urban crime and violence, which are epidemic throughout Brazil and especially in São Paulo, the megalopolis of nearly 20 million souls that is the largest city in the southern hemisphere.
Although no less concerned with the causes and effects of Brazil’s urban crime epidemic, Sérgio Bianchi’s stellar film The Tenants (Os Inquilinos) presents a study of urban violence that is starkly different in both style and intent from the lurid brutality found in films like City of God or Elite Squad. Unlike those films, Bianchi’s 2009 effort is an intimate and richly detailed domestic thriller examining the social and psychological effects of inner-city violence on one working-class São Paulo family.
Bianchi conjures up an unsettlingly real vision of the poisonous atmosphere created by the threat of violence that is always looming just outside the frame of everyday life for many residents of São Paulo. Despite their best efforts to affect normalcy, it visibly haunts each of Bianchi’s characters, who carry it around with them like the dull pain of a lingering toothache, always throbbing but never erupting into full-on agony. They can learn to live with it and may even be able ignore it at times, but it remains a daily presence for many of them. The Tenants (not to be confused with the laughably ridiculous 2006 team-up between Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg) shows us how, whether or not that violence touches one’s life directly, the deep paranoia and tension that it creates can grow and feed on itself like a cancer in the back of the brain, warping our perceptions of society, our families, and ourselves.
The protagonist of this deceptively simple gem is Valter, a “typical” working-class family man. Valter works all day at a menial job loading crates in a warehouse and goes to school by night, working hard to improve his prospects with the hope of pulling his family up into a middle-class existence. Despite an exhausting schedule that leaves him with little time or energy to spend with his beautiful, loving wife and two children (beyond bleary breakfast-table conversation and late-night TV watching), he is by all appearances the picture of a contented man thankful for his blessings, however small.
But when a trio of young hoodlums moves into the house next door to Valter and his family, the delicate balance of his life is tipped—at first ever so slightly, then more and more as time goes on. They bring a toxic air of crime and violence with them. They drink, they party late into the night, they crash cars. They argue about drug deals gone bad in the middle of the street, and who was supposed to murder who. Although we almost never see them except through Valter’s windows and almost never hear them except the rumbling bass from their late-night parties that leaks through Valter’s walls, it’s plain to see that they’re bad news.
Away from his family from the early morning until late at night, Valter begins fearing for their safety, and as paranoia and fear begin their slow creep up his spine and take root in the back of his mind, their small home changes from a domestic oasis to a fortified bunker to a claustrophobic prison. Although his interaction with the neighbors next door is minimal, Valter begins to live in a world of nauseating uncertainty, lying awake wondering what’s going to come next. Will he wake up to intruders in his house? Will one of his children catch a stray bullet? Will his wife catch their eye some lazy afternoon?
Trying to juggle his duty to set an example for his kids, his threatened sense of masculinity, his need to protect his family, and his mounting anger and fear, Valter is a man pulled in too many directions by too many seemingly incompatible needs. Filmed entirely from Valter’s perspective, Bianchi’s direction and the lead performance of Marat Descartes each do a fantastic job of slowly ratcheting up the tension until Valter’s sense of entrapment and alienation becomes almost unbearable. The sense of increasing weight on Valter’s shoulders becomes more and more palpable as the film progresses to its queasy conclusion.
Bianchi’s direction is surefooted and wonderfully controlled, stylish without being distracting. His intimate, almost clinic examination of the way a normal family copes (or doesn’t) under extraordinary stresses and the looming threat of violence is bound to recall the work of Michael Haneke, and rightly so. But Bianchi is entirely uninterested in anything resembling Haneke’s brand of editorializing meta-commentary or accusatory finger-pointing, preferring to keep his judgements to himself. In doing so he is brave enough to leave some questions unanswered and some fingers un-pointed, and the result is a film that is all the more unsettling and harder to shake. By simply remaining true to his characters and the understated nature of his story, he places the audience into some uncomfortable positions and forces them to consider things about themselves that they might rather leave unexamined.
As gripping as Marat Descartes is as Valter, special mention should go to Ana Carbatti as Valter’s wife Iara, who slowly becomes more and more frustrated with what she sees as Valter’s unwillingness to handle the situation next door. Her measured, precisely-calibrated performance is mesmerizing in the way it suggests a frustrated feral intensity just beneath the surface, always keeping the audience off-guard about when (or if) it might be unleashed. Her character provides a telling example of the way in which an atmosphere of lingering danger and violence can be exciting in the way it stirs up passions, or even feeds bloodlust. In a scene late in the film where she excitedly recounts a violent crime to some other neighborhood wives, her performance is positively chilling in the way she seems to relish describing and ramping up the drama and danger. It’s one of several terrific performances in a deeply engaging film that showcases some of the best of what modern Brazilian cinema has to offer.
The sole extra on the DVD from the Global Film Initiative‘s ‘‘Global Lens Collection’’ is a pdf file of a ‘discussion guide’ that will be of little value to non-educators, but the mere presence of this gem on Region 1 DVD in the first place is worth being thankful for.