“Todos os mortos” at the berlinale: the ghosts of the past

The film "Todos os mortos" by Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra negotiates the legacy of Brazilian slavery with much symbolism (Competition).

Photo shows: Mawusi Tulani (left) and Agyei Augusto (right) Photo: Helène Louvart/Dezenove Som e Imagens.

When Josefina, the last servant of the Soares family, dies, Isabel and her grown-up daughters MarIa and Ana realize that their privileged life on the coffee plantation is finally a thing of the past. Long since the bankruptcy of the rural family estate, the three women live in the now prosperous city of Sao Paulo.

"Todos os mortos" (Eng: All the Dead), the first feature film by Caetano Gotardo and Marco Dutra together, tells of Brazil’s social change at the end of the 19th century – ten years after the final abolition of slavery. He connects the decadent development of the Soares women with the fate of the former slave Ida and her freeborn son Joao in the urban environment of Sao Paulo.

But Gotardo and Dutra choose in the screenplay to shift the conflicts of this historical upheaval into more spiritual realms and to charge them symbolically with meaning. In order to expel "all the dead" (slaves) of the past who regularly appear in the house to the psychologically unstable Ana, her sister MarIa – a nun and teacher – is forced to bring Ida (Mawusi Tulani) to town to help.

24. 2. Haus der Berliner Festspiele

24. Friedrichstadtpalast

29. CinemaxX 7

1. 3. Friedrichstadtpalast

The religious rituals of her African ancestors, in which the connection to the spirits is sought, are supposed to calm the otherwise unstable sister. Ana, who spends her days at the piano, never leaves the house, and is no longer destined for marriage, gives voice to the deeply felt racism of her class in her supposed rapture.

Chamber-play-like setting

Nevertheless, her character, portrayed by Carolina Bianchi, remains quite superficially drawn. And the other protagonists in "Todos os mortos" hardly appear as real individuals, but mainly as representatives of the roles assigned to them. In spite of interesting details, this seems rather wooden and predictable in the chamber play-like setting. Thus, Ida’s return to the religion of her ancestors stands above all for the self-assertion of her own Afro-Brazilian identity in a newly forming urban society.

The two directors’ artifice of combining the historical narrative with the scenery of contemporary Sao Paulo, thereby referring to the continuity of history, could also be experienced more convincingly most recently in "Transit," Christian Petzold’s Competition entry at the 68th Berlinale.

Together with Juliana Rojas, director Marco Dutra won the Silver Lion at Locarno in 2017 for the horror drama "As boas maneiras." Presumably, this recommended him for participation in the Berlin competition with his new feature film. After all, in "Todos os mortos" the plot also takes on increasingly dark features toward the end. Not without unintentional comedy, the already anemic Ana transforms into a kind of gothic creature from the underworld in the final sequence.

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