It is said that the road movie was born on the highways and byways of North America. From busy cross-country interstates to sleepy backcountry lanes, the open road has always been a strong cultural metaphor for the independence and freedom so embedded in the ideal of wht is America. Transferring national fascination with the automobile to the silver screen was a logical step in expanding the romantic myth that surrounds Americans and their beloved cars.
As any driver who has ever undertaken a long road trip knows, a certain anxious myopia tends to set in and the endpoint soon becomes the overwhelming focus of the entire journey. It is often easy to forget that there are other roads and different routes that will lead you on your way. The same can be said for road movies that venture outside of the well-worn paths paved by (North) American cinema.
At their heart road movies are about discovery and passage. Characters undertake journeys often with little more than the hope of moving beyond the point where they began. These themes are not unique to North America but, unfortunately, are often overrepresented at the cineplex. For audiences looking to veer off the overloaded streets of commercial cinema, there are wonderful treats that lay just beyond the main road.
One such discovery is the 2005 Brazilian film Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures. Admittedly modest and quiet in its scope, this is a film that reveals its beauty by choosing to take the time and explore the many roads that lay off the beaten track.
Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures takes place in 1942 along the dusty and barren back roads of northeastern Brazil. Johann (Peter Ketnath), a young German who fled his home country before the start of World War II, is driving around the country selling aspirin to peasant villagers in Brazil’s far-flung countryside. With the aid of simple advertising films extolling the miraculous benefits of aspirin, Johann makes a simple living moving from town to town in his beat up old truck.
Affable, relaxed, and quietly cautious, Johann clearly relishes the freedom and anonymity he finds on the open road. His self-sufficient confidence feels authentically earned rather than forced and masked by the bravado of youth. Only the occasional hitchhiker interrupts Johann’s solo journey across the sweltering landscape of Brazil’s desert.
Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures really begins its story when Johann stops to pick up a young man walking along the hot, barren, and nameless roads of northeastern Brazil. Ranulpho (João Miguel) is desperate to leave behind the poor and drought-plagued region of his birth. Without money or a clearly defined plan of action he is, nonetheless, determined to try his luck in the capital, Rio de Janeiro.
With an equal measuring of petulance and pride, Ranulpho can barely contain the anger and resentment he holds against the world. Where most people would find nothing but loathsome irritation Johann seems to find Ranulpho’s sour disposition slightly amusing. A cheekily enterprising young man, Ranulpho offers to be Johann’s assistant in the aspirin business. Johann agrees and they travel from small town to small town, hawking the wonder drug that is aspirin, on their way down to Rio.
The slow and quiet accumulation of experiences along their journey binds the two men together and a genuine friendship is forged. Under Johann’s tutelage Ranulpho learns the daily mechanics behind running the aspirin business in the hope that he may join the company as a contracted operator.
Johann and Ranulpho find themselves out on the road driving away not only from their past, but toward an uncertain future, as well. The reality and horror of World War II is an ever present force in Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures, and the real world creeps in through daily news bulletins that ring out from Johann’s portable radio. As Brazil is drawn into the war Johann receives word that as a German citizen he must either leave the country or surrender himself to a concentration camp in São Paulo. Both men soon realize that their paths, like the road they have been traveling on, are not clearly delineated on a map.
Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures is a quiet and modest film whose strength is rooted in its very simplicity. Narrative action comes not in the form of spectacular car chases, unrelenting gun battles, or outrageously bizarre characters. Rather, the film’s charm develops from its exploration of the quotidian and seemingly unremarkable. Johann and Ranulpho drive, they listen to the radio, they talk, they look out the window and they see the world around them.
Perhaps that does not sound like much but through the assured direction of Marcelo Gomes and the wonderful cinematography of Mauro Pinheiro, the film conveys the mysterious power and charged possibility of moments we often disregard as merely ordinary. Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures is a casually ruminative film that radiates with all of the uncertainties that face us on the road of life.
The recent release of Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures on DVD will hopefully allow for a wider audience to appreciate the ever expanding horizon of global cinema. The extras are disappointingly limited to biographical information and trailers, yet, the film’s unique journey and the power of its voice are well worth taking the trip.