Reviews Short Narrative

Alvorada (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Carolina Neves

Writers: Carolina Neves

Cast: Afonso Alves, João Cravo Cardoso, Carlos Gomes

Running time: 12 mins

Portugal’s Presidential elections suggested a worrying surge in support for the country’s far-right. While the ongoing pandemic, and the fact the President’s powers are largely ceremonial, mean turnout was much lower than 2019’s poll for the national legislature, the new party CHEGA (Portuguese for ‘Enough’) appears to have gained further traction since its electoral debut in 2019.

In the election for the legislature in 2019, it scraped 1.3% of the vote – enough for a single seat – while in the Presidential election it garnered 11.9% of the vote. While the lacklustre turnout might see that billed as a greater success than it really is, the fact is that it received almost 500,000 votes – compared to just 70,000 two years ago, suggesting that CHEGA has hundreds of thousands more supporters who are now so committed that they would risk going to the polls during a medical emergency to back it.

While the nation is still governed by a left-wing coalition which cemented its mandate at the last election, and its Presidency is still held comfortably by the country’s centre-right party, it is still a concerning development – particularly as it suggests that beyond parliamentary politics, fascistic politics may be gaining traction, and such movements do not need to gain control of the conventional modes of power before they can start to harm people.

With this in mind, student filmmaker Carolina Neves’ directorial debut Alvorada is a brave and impactful first attempt, which deserves commendation for attempting to address the tensions bubbling away under the surface of her country. It is a daunting topic, and one which far more seasoned artists than Neves shy away from – either for fear that they will scare off potential backers by touching on potentially divisive and inflammatory topics, or the possibility that despite being technically competent filmmakers, they may not be well-versed enough in the complexity of the situation to do it justice in a narrative spanning less than 12 minutes.

One of the most impressive elements of Neves’ film is its world-building. Through its thorough and thought-out construction of mise-en-scène, Neves is able to take a light-touch approach to exposition – meaning our characters are never forced to ham-fistedly explain to us who they are, or where they fit into a fraught and divided society at large. As Vasco (Afonso Alves) shuffles through the street, hunched over to avoid drawing attention to himself, he passes graffiti which insists “your vote does not count,” while in the grimy underground venue where he watches his brother’s death metal band play in the opening sequence, many of the crowd are decked out in fascistic clothing – including his brother, who has 88 (short among white supremacist groups for HH, or Heil Hitler) tattooed on his left hand.

Cinematographer Ângela Bismarck also deserves a great deal of praise for the way the construction of this opening scene – the lighting and theatrical blocking of which has more than a little Rammstein about it. While that band arguably insights Nazi imagery for satirical ends, however, it quickly becomes clear that Vasco’s brother (João Cravo Cardoso) is not under any such pretences. Backstage after the show, the pair share a celebratory photo – during which Vasco is visibly uncomfortable with the embrace. Soon after, he makes his hasty excuses, and having feigned support for his brother’s performance makes a swift exit – apparently to visit a ‘new girl’ his brother is yet to meet.

Seemingly caught in two minds about going to this apparent date, Vasco instead returns to his family home. He turns the television off while his mother sleeps in front of it – the news is tellingly informing us of the rising dangers of far-right extremism in Europe – before heading to his room. In the darkened room are two beds – one which belongs to Vasco, one to his brother – while the walls are festooned with Nazi paraphernalia.

In this moment serves to crystalise the two characters, offering them each an additional dimension, again without the need for dialogue. In this pathetic environment, it is possible to understand – without condoning – why Vasco’s brother has gone down such a dark path. Presumably unable to find employment or a way of making a living from music, he is still sharing a childhood bedroom with his brother. Without hope of a better future than that, he is siding with fascists in the same way many people do – as a means to lash out against the political status quo he sees as having abandoned him.  

At the same time, we can see that while Vasco might not be entirely sympathetic to his brother’s politics, he certain seems confined by it. He remains visible uneasy in this setting – he is on edge in his own home, seemingly desperate to leave again, but caught in two minds as to whether he should. In the end, he does – and the two sequences serve as a well-engineered set-up to a payoff which flips the film on its head. Vasco’s ‘new girl’ is a new guy.

It’s a bitter sweet moment when we finally realise this. On the one hand, the scene shows Vasco finally overcoming his fears to be himself, to stop living for the perceived expectations of his brother, and to find love and support with other people. On the other, viewers familiar with this kind of social realist cinema know that such moments often preface a sickening jolt back to Earth. As with the filmography of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, when a working-class protagonist finds a brief solace from the ravages of poverty or social alienation, that momentary oasis is usually snatched right back from them just moments later.

While to an extent this proves to be the case here, Neves ultimately opts to leave the conflict between Vasco and his brother unresolved. On the balance of things, this is a justifiable move – trying to tie everything up in a bow at the end of this would have undermined some of the nuance of the film, by either delivering an overly simplistic solution (let’s all get along with one another), or suggesting too bluntly that these divisions cannot be reversed (Vasco’s brother is a lost cause and beats him up). The problem with leaving the final confrontation completely unspoken, however, is that we don’t have much clarity as to what the issues between the two actually might be.

Vasco’s brother does not seem to have hinted at being homophobic – and while Nazis historically have been, there are white supremacists out there who are either homosexual, or don’t regard that as an important issue compared to the concept of racial warfare. Admittedly this is unlikely, but at the same time, there is also a lack of emphasis on solidarity between groups the far-right target, or a suggestion that unless one is directly impacted by far-right politics, there is no reason to become invested in fighting it.

Leaving this important aspect unaddressed meant that as my mind explored the options of how the story ends once the credits role, there was an absurd notion that the brother could simply suggest “We don’t care who you love, as long as they’re white,” and that suddenly Vasco might even be reconciled with his values. Again, it seems an absurd conclusion, but it’s one that the film might have done something to eliminate being a possibility in our mind’s eye.

At the end of the day, there might have been a tiny bit more detail put into the interactions of the characters onscreen to really elevate this film. In general, however, Alvorada’s sparsity is one of its best features – and showcases a filmmaker who is already well aware of how to edit herself – having presented a stripped down and streamlined story which still works thanks to the craft and restraint at its core. As a result, there are filmmakers who have been honing their craft for decades who might have struggled to pull off this timely and intricate analysis of familial relations and politics – but Carolina Neves has managed to do just that.

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