Foreign Land, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas
Photo Courtesy of MUBI

‘Foreign Land’ and the Dawn of a New Age in Brazilian Cinema

The bleakness in Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’ 1995 crime thriller Foreign Land would mark the film as a paragon in the newly emerging Brazilian cinema.

Foreign Land
Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas

The scene is set: it is 1990, and the entire population of Brazil is brimming with excitement. The restoration of democracy following two decades of an arbitrary regime maintained by military dictators is finally over, and faith in better conditions for the populace is palpable. The new president – a comparatively younger, handsome, and inspirational figure guarantees an end to institutional corruption. His administration and the Brazilian people will push the largest country in Latin America to degrees of development previously thought unattainable. It is going to work; it has to.

Reality could not have been any different. On his first day as the 32nd president of Brazil, Fernando Collor de Mello implemented a series of policies that would attempt to reduce the exponential inflation that ravaged the economy. His efforts led to chaos. Amongst his plans (dubbed “the Collor Agenda”), the new representative confiscated the largest percentage of capital kept by the population in the banks, seeking to reduce their buying power and, as such, forcing inflation to decrease. It did not work like that, and thousands took to the streets to call out the actions of the new administration, kickstarting a process that would lead to sordid revelations of scandals and that would be concluded, at least to a certain degree, with Collor’s impeachment, in 1992. Many who held hope for the new decade – including, but not limited to, those who voted for de Mello – felt dejected, abandoned, and disillusioned. Suicide rates skyrocketed, and it wasn’t unfamiliar to hear of people who died of heart attacks upon hearing the news of the country’s economic crisis.

The measures announced by de Mello prompted, amongst other things, a dark age for Brazilian cinema, with several productions being canned due to lack of budget. Save for a few mainstream productions (many of which were backed by large television conglomerates), arthouse cinema, as it could be, would have to live as it could in the fringes for a while. It wasn’t until the new administration in 1994, fronted by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso that directors and studios would finally find the right conditions to bring new, ambitious, and exciting productions to eager audiences once again.

It is ironic, then, that one of the first and most notable of these films would tackle that which would be known as one of the most obscure periods in recent Brazilian history. Directed by Walter Salles (with co-direction credits granted to Daniela Thomas), 1996’s Foreign Land (Terra Estrangeira) is a feverish, innovative, hermetic portrayal of a fractured dream. At its release, it resonated powerfully among those who had yet to start forgetting about their mistakes – and, as such, to be doomed to repeat them.

Paco (Fernando Alves Pinto) is a young, idealistic student of physics who finds himself enamored by the possibility of becoming a theater actor. He struggles to not let the confines of the apartment he shares with his mother, Manuela (Laura Cardoso) kill his idyllic dreams for his future. On the other hand, Manuela is not deprived of her fantasies, either: the 60-something longs for the Spanish land of San Sebastian, the hometown of her late father, and hopes to gather enough cash to allow her to return to the land that her family owned.

Her dream is crushed, and so is her heart, as she learns of the country’s new economic goals on television, her plans now abruptly ended. Shocked to her core, the woman dies of cardiac arrest. Now alone in a place where the prospects of a good life seem as distant as ever, Paco finds himself imbued with the duty of achieving his mother’s ambition and joins the shady smuggler Igor (Luís Mello) to get to San Sebastian. But first, they must make a stop in Lisbon.

Paco’s mission in the Portuguese capital is simple: to deliver a violin (of inestimable value, as it is implied) to a fellow Brazilian residing in the city, Miguel (Alexandre Borges). A trumpet player with a heroin addiction, the musician is in a relationship with fellow immigrant Alex (Fernanda Torres), who works as a waitress and aspires to make a life for herself despite living in a continent that makes her recall her displacement time and again.

Miguel’s tragic, unexpected demise in the midst of dealing diamonds and the mysterious disappearance of the coveted musical instrument eventually see Paco and Alex’s paths crossed. The two must rely on one another to escape from the smugglers who seek the missing violin and will stop at nothing to get back their diamonds. A budding feeling of new love shines through their mutual distrust as the two fugitives find themselves intertwined by far more than this desperate run for their lives. They share the loneliness of being foreigners in a strange land with few prospects of thriving, their constant marginalization, and the inscrutable gaze of reticent locals. Only the bookstore owner, Pedro (João Lagarto), is kind to them.

Foreign Land is filmed in black and white, as though intending to show the stark, bleak reality that awaited Brazilians at the turn of the decade. This works in favor of its most contemplative scenes, with special care taken when depicting the two protagonists in more deserted areas, which contrasts with the chaotic urban scenes in the first part of the story. The scenes in Brazil and Portugal are key to producing a sense of immersion, however crowded or empty the spaces may be. Even the more thrilling passages here are imbued with a fragile, delicate, and overwhelming sense of beauty, which might sometimes be mistaken for dread. That’s where Foreign Land‘s soundtrack, courtesy of pianist José Miguel Wisnik, merges with the visuals to create dream-like, feverish landscapes that add gravitas to a story that marches toward a dark, pounding conclusion.

Brilliantly cast with household names from Brazilian and Portugul – with Mello and Lagarto bringing menacing cool and earnest, heartfelt empathy to their characters – the central duo deserve the spotlight they occupy. Alves Pinto juggles the pessimism and naïvete of Paco without pastiche or overacting, and Torres proves herself to be among the most talented and gifted actresses of her generation, proving that a knack for exploring the deepest emotions known to man to the big screen can, indeed, run in the family (Torres is the daughter of legendary actress Fernanda Montenegro). Alex’s jadedness, paired with the wide-eyed amazement and loss of her co-protagonist, makes for a compelling, moving, and unsettling performance.

As it turned out, Foreign Land’s bleakness became one of the paragons for new Brazilian cinema. Forty festivals throughout the world selected the film, and it marked Walter Sallesas as a generational talent. Salles would go on to work with both Daniela Thomas and Fernanda Torres once more a mere two years later, with The First Day. His real big move, however, would come later in that same year: Central Station brought him the opportunity to work with Fernanda Montenegro and, in a sole-director credit, his first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 71st Academy Awards. It would lose to Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.

Foreign Land deals with one of the most troubled moments in the history of Brazil with care and sensitivity; it knows when and how to pull its punches – and when to do the opposite. It remains almost three decades from its original release, a statement of truth, a historical document in dramatic cinema form, an artifact beamed from a period when people understood that remembering their history was the first step toward avoiding the mistakes from the past. In retrospect, Foreign Land is one of the three films responsible for revitalizing Realism in Brazilian cinema. Alongside Carla Camurati’s Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brazil and Fábio Barreto’s O Quatrilho (both from 1995), it would signify an ambitious, much-deserved rebirth for one of the richest art industries in the world.