Memory House Review: This Nightmarish Fable Offers a Bleak Diagnosis of Contemporary Brazil

Violence — or, rather, the threat of violence — haunts every frame of João Paulo Miranda Maria’s debut feature film, “Memory House.” Set in an Austrian settlement in Southern Brazil, this discomfiting drama tells the story of a man so alienated by the world around him that the stench of death at work and the menacing environment outside it have hollowed him out. That is until his titular dwelling kicks off a transformation that turns Miranda Maria’s character study into a folk-infused fable for a country in crisis.

Cristovam (played by Antonio Pitanga, an iconic figure of Brazil’s Cinema Novo) spends his days listlessly working at a dairy factory. Displaced by the very company that now employs him, he’s resettled from the North and finds little in common with either his German-speaking employers or his fellow workers. At 81 years old, Pitanga is a towering presence on screen, bringing with him not just a wealth of cultural signifiers (he starred in Glauber Rocha’s very first film, “Barravento”) but his laconic demeanor conjures up hidden depths that are slowly peeled back. Etched across his face are the features of a Black man weathered by a system that only sees him as a cog in a machine, a number on a ledger. His eyes barely register any emotion when his boss threatens his pension; his shoulders stoop as he undresses, his co-workers as indifferent to his presence in the locker room as at the cafeteria. His only safe space is his home, a remote house that, over the course of the film, reveals itself to be more than meets the eye. Cristovam begins the film as a sleepwalker all too resigned to slumber, but the thrill of “Memory House” is seeing him be slowly jolted awake.

Here’s where the film’s original Portuguese title feels all the more apt. Unlike “Memory House,” which makes Cristovam sound like he’s trapped in a gothic short story, “La casa de antiguidades” (literally “antiquities house”) situates his abode as a place where objects and their attendant histories have been discarded. Yet there’s also a sense of curation that comes through in that original title; not everything that’s old can be restored; not all that’s been forgotten can be reclaimed.

As Cristovam finds himself digging through newfound objects that appear out of nowhere at his place, he plunges deeper into his (and his own country’s) past. Where the world of the Kainz dairy company is awash in antiseptic whites and silvers — the factory looks like a futuristic vision straight out of the ’70s — Cristovam’s house soon pushes him into earthier territory, eventually letting him take on, quite literally, the role of a boiadeiro (or Brazilian cowboy), with a bull-shaped folk mask to match.

As incongruous as this image appears, Miranda Maria treats Cristovam’s carnivalesque turn with requisite reverence — with menace, even. For this folk figure ends up serving as a metaphorical rebuke to the pristine, and authoritarian, order Kainz wants to maintain: Cristovam may look merely unamused at the required meetings where his bosses sketch out their plan to secede from the rest of Brazil and thus leave its more “backward” regions behind, their populist rhetoric blending seamlessly with disturbingly conservative views, but as he’s forced to confront his discomfort with the life he’s been living, it’s clear there’s a bubbling anger that stretches back decades.

What’s most remarkable about “Memory House” is not just its boldness but its beauty. Despite trafficking in urgent social and economic concerns, the film has a visceral sensibility that finds both poetry and politics in the simplest of images. It’s not just Cristovam’s bull mask (which conjures so much culture and history in its iconicity). It’s a shot of a cow bleeding out after being slaughtered, reflected over Cristovam’s protective gear at the factory. It’s a shot of a woman seen from behind, standing tall at the local bar’s billiard table, her wide stance establishing her as an intimidating presence who’s nevertheless the object of everyone’s lustful gaze. It’s the shot of a pale young boy aiming his rifle at the camera, his t-shirt showing his allegiance for a separatist state, who looks at us with disdain and curiosity — and perhaps even fear.

These are frames packed with complex ideas — about capitalism’s treatment of its workers as disposable cattle, about women’s agency in sexist environments where their every gesture is policed, about racial disparities etched across class and geography that are perpetuated with violence — but they pack a punch because of their simplicity. Lensed by frequent Sebastián Lelio collaborator, Benjamín Echazarreta (“A Fantastic Woman,” “Gloria”), “Memory House” crackles with images and long simmering sequences (many of them wordless, bolstered by Nicolas Becker’s ominous score) that drive home its message without ever needing to spell it out.

With its supernatural flourishes and its unsparing take on a Brazil that looks both dystopian and nostalgic in equal measure, Miranda Maria’s debut feature is an impressive calling card. “Memory House” is, above all, a fable about identities lost and cultural artifacts in need of recovery that doubles as a thrilling and foreboding ride designed to rattle audiences at home and abroad with equal verve.

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