A 2011 film from Brazil Southwest (Sudoeste) is a beautiful and strange film. A woman named Clarice gives birth to a baby just as she herself is dying. The child is also named Clarice, though she is given that name by a witch and is then taken away to live in a lakeside village. And live she does. Her entire life comes and goes in the space of a single day.
The film may be set in late 19th or early 20th century, or it may even be set in contemporary times for the remote lives the characters live. Both time and life are fluid in the span of this film, as we float through a dreamy haze of life as the normal trappings of existence, love and death and happiness and worry, bob before our eyes like boats on the lake where Clarice lives. Eduardo Nunes’ black and white images only enhances this dreamlike, narcotic state, compelling the viewer to drift away in a trance that allows traditional elements of plot and character to fall away and for pure enjoyment of the film to take over.
Even without those traditional elements present one might expect dialogue to reveal something about the characters or even the minimal plot, but there’s a sparsity of words to carry Clarice through her life. Much of what is revealed comes through expression and action and occasionally the beautifully somnolent score. The buildings the characters occupy, the sky that hovers unbroken over them, and the simple gestures they exchange carry the weight of the film. The viewer is left to imagine what might unfold or what might have unfolded in the spaces between.
To watch the birth and the blossoming and then finally the dying of this character is both captivating and sad. There’s a rhythm that sets in early in the film that is both patient and insistent, asking the viewer to move forward, albeit slowly, even though the time is short.
This is a world and these are characters who feel like we do, who connect and disconnect in ways that are timeless, eternal. Others that are marked by the choices they make and the hopes they have. The pace and movement and rhythm of this film is both soothing and frustrating. Soothing because it allows us to beg time to stand still and frustrating because we know that it cannot.
If this seems a threadbare premise for a film, it is and perhaps Southwest is all the better for it. Many directors and writers have experimented with minimal dialogue and skeletal plots and many of them have delivered material that is lacking. Gus Van Sant’s 2005 Last Days comes to mind as one of several that have attempted this feat but leaves the audience wanting more from the filmmaker. Maybe that’s because a film such as Last Days attempts to expose us to a setting and situation that is familiar, and therefore we have set expectations of it. Here, we must imagine the world that emerges before our eyes as often as we must also look at it and try to understand it.
Southwest has been making the rounds in the United States over the last couple of years, screening here and there and picking up mostly favorable reviews. Nunes has gone on to work on two other films and one wonders how long it might be before he undertakes a project as brilliantly understated as this one. Perhaps he, too, has experienced an entire life in a short span, one that is both ongoing and unforgiving. He has a promising voice and vision, and we would hate to see him race hastily into another feature that was too close to the spirit of this—or perhaps even too far away.
The DVD version of this film doesn’t offer much in the way of extras but repeat viewings of the main attraction are probably the only extras you’ll need. There’s a discussion guide that can be downloaded in PDF form with the film that will no doubt help viewers by giving them a starting place to talk about this remarkable motion picture and, by extension others like it. However Southwest makes itself apparent in your life. It would be best to embrace it for the marvelous and worthwhile time it asks of you, and to meditate on rather than think about the true significance of everything that rolls forth before your eyes. This is truly timeless film that both suggests that time is of the essence, and that time itself may be meaningless.