“Vazante” is an origin story written in bile and ornamented with reluctant beauty. It takes place in southeastern Brazil in 1821 — some six decades before the abolition of slavery — on a squalid farm deep in the mountains. There, a white drover turned farmer, Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), is trying to make a go of it on the backs of enslaved black men, women and children. He’s failed to cultivate the land, blaming it for his defeat, and seems equally terrible at everything else. Soon after the movie opens, his wife and baby die during labor, a tragedy that suggests that here life itself is doomed from the start.
Indolent and apparently untroubled by his multiple failings, Antonio had received the farm as part of his wife’s dowry. Her doddering mother, Zizinha (Juliana Carneiro Da Cunha), came with the place, and presumably so did the slaves who mind the house, like Joana (Geisa Costa), and others who tend the farm, like Porfírio (Adilson Maghá). It’s an austere, pitiless world and might be a near-unbearable, unwatchable one if the director Daniela Thomas didn’t hook you early. But she does, starting with the black-and-white cinematography that draws you in, just because it’s so infrequently used these days.
The palette is alluringly exotic, but it’s also expressive, with subtle shades — white, dove, slate, jet — that soon take on metaphoric resonance. (Inti Briones is the director of photography.) Yet while the visuals and natural world catch the eye, Ms. Thomas, who has directed movies with Walter Salles, rarely lingers to admire the view or her own handiwork. There’s a bracing lack of vanity in how she conveys this long-lost world and not an iota of misplaced nostalgia. She shows you the loveliness, but she also insistently juxtaposes it with the grim sights and clanging sounds of heavily shackled men.
Ms. Thomas, working from a script by her and Beto Amaral, plots the narrative coordinates fairly leisurely. The movie’s rhythms are unhurried, though for the most part not indulgently so, and fit both the period and Antonio’s uneasy lassitude (which makes a stark contrast with the slaves’ work). Characters enter and exit, offering up names and filling in the back story. Antonio’s brother-in-law, Bartholomeu (Roberto Audio), slides into the picture with his unhappy wife, Ondina (Sandra Corveloni), and their daughters, Maria Joaquina (Isadora Favero) and Beatriz (Luana Nastas). They’re poor, but while Bartholomeu has resigned himself to his fate, the women around him have not.
Credit Inti Briones/Music Box Films
In time, Ms. Thomas’s focus narrows on Beatriz, whom Antonio weds. He soon departs on business, leaving his child bride (she hasn’t started menstruating) and addled mother-in-law with his openly restless slaves, a development that makes next to no narrative sense but gives Ms. Thomas ample time to stir up trouble and add some dramatic tension. With Antonio away, Beatriz is soon running through the fields with a young slave, Virgílio (Vinicius Dos Anjos). His mother, Feliciana (Jai Baptista), is routinely forced to share Antonio’s bed, which suggests that Virgílio may be Antonio’s son, one more complication in a lyrically minded movie that wafts into schematic tidiness and bluntness.
This shift is at odds with Ms. Thomas’s embrace of ellipticism. She’s obviously interested in how race influences gender and class, and how they all press against — and impinge on — one another until they’re inseparable. (The lack of indigenous people in this story is a curious absence.) It’s also evident that she doesn’t want to make a thesis movie or put speeches in anyone’s mouth. So for much of the movie she comes at her ideas sideways, circling them much as her characters orbit one another and letting her images — a black boy gently running his fingers over a white girl’s arm — carry the weight of her meaning.
By the end, it’s hard not to wish that Ms. Thomas had traded a bit of her art-film drift for something more direct. One of her strongest characters turns out to be an unnamed slave (Toumani Kouyaté, excellent), who’s part of a new group that Antonio brings to the farm. A ferociously charismatic presence, this man serves as the group’s leader and insistently speaks up, commanding attention with each utterance. In a misguided decision, though, his dialogue hasn’t been subtitled, ostensibly because no one at the farm understands the newcomers. “It ain’t Bantu,” an older slave says, referring to an African language. The one man here worth listening to has been effectively silenced.