I’m sure a common question posed to many filmmakers is “what came first – the images or the story?” In mainstream filmmaking, that answer’s pretty obvious; the story predominantly drives the images. But for smaller, independent filmmakers who replace the luxury of a small army of screenwriters with more overarching aesthetic concerns, you might average around 50/50 on responses. I suspect Marcelo Gomes and Karim Aïnouz, the filmmakers behind I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You (Viajo Porque Preciso, Volto Porque Te Amo) (Brazil, 2009) would lean towards the images part of the equation; narrative devices shape the film , but the sense of place is foremost, and pervasive. The ‘place’ in this instance is the sertão, the northeastern stretch of Brazilian equatorial scrubland that stretches from the Atlantic coast westward. The film begins as a POV travelogue, but, as it proceeds, the main character’s own state of mind melds with the landscape, and the landscape is perceived as the perfect corollary to the unseen narrator’s existential state.
The narrator is José, a geologist who has been asked to do research on this part of the country, as it is the proposed site of a major new canal. He is driving from town to town, site to site, along and across the path of the canal to assess its suitability for the project, and to estimate the scale and scope of the displacement, both environmental and human, the new waterway will incur. And interspersed with the cold recitations of mineral compositions, tectonic plate angles and topographical observations is his longing for Joana, his beloved ‘Blondie’ that he’s left behind in order to perform his tasks. She’s a botanist, and he draws philosophical parallels with the common earthbound nature of their separate occupations. But there’s a darker side to his pensiveness as well. “The only thing that cheers me up on this trip is the memory of you,” he thinks; mere seconds later, he restates “You know, the only thing that gets me down on this trip are memories of you.” And the further along he travels, the more dualities like this start to stack up. In Juazeiro del Norte, a small village known as a religious pilgrimage site, he leaves their wedding picture in a small shrine to the canonized Padre Cicero – “Maybe peace can be returned to our home,” he intones. “Every marriage is perfect until it ends.”
His conflicted emotional state starts to lend pessimism to his scientific tasks. He’s fond of the people and families he’s interacting with, and is troubled by their having to move. Hill ranges seem too large. There are too many power lines, pylons and towers to be moved. Now when he spends nights in the local towns, the science and philosophy and poetic emotions turn more prosaic. He frequents the small clubs, drinks, eats, and acquaints himself with the coarser, more carnal aspects of the local color. He patronizes the local prostitutes, and takes in a ramshackle circus, befriending the carnies, commiserating on his isolation. But there are beacons hidden along the way as well: a prostitute describes her aspirant hopes for she and her daughter, and an elderly shoemaker shares his favorite love song. Travelling in José’s shoes, seeing and hearing everything through his eyes and ears, we, too, feel the emotional effects of his conflicts and hopes, and weigh the same dualities that he’s experiencing.
I found this film to be quite wonderful. Its deliberate pace and solitary perspective call to mind the work of Robert Bresson or Chantal Akerman – the slow accumulation of personal experiences and everyday occurrences are observed with almost religious scrutiny. It’s a movie about a guy on the road working things out, which works well here, all by itself; and it’s the journey of an agnostic acolyte, fleeing into isolation, having his dark night of the soul, and reaching for redemption – that level is there to find as well. The filmmakers’ presentation of this land as a fit place for these issues for this person is seamless. The narration, the choices of music, the passage of day and night, all tie the expansive images together into easily-digestible episodes; no matter how mundane or abstracted they get (and there are some very dreamlike episodes here, indeed), we never lose our connection with our host, our guide, our troubled friend.
Gomes and Aïnouz have made separate feature films themselves – this seems to be their first feature collaboration, and they each have new projects in the works. Let’s hope they get back together from time to time. On the basis of this film, it’s clear they have substantial, and moving, things to express. No small army of screenwriters could have possibly done better.
‘I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You’ screens at the Siskel Film Center from Friday, May 6th to Thursday, May 12th. Refer to their web page for showtimes.