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All the Dead Ones Review

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All the Dead Ones | 2020 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

All the Dead Ones | 2020 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Turn and Face the Strange: Caetano & Gotardo Navigate Displacement in Stellar Period Piece

All the Dead Ones PosterThe tagline for George Cukor’s 1939 classic The Women read “It’s all about men!” which is a potential (one of many) assertions one could make of Marco Dutra & Caetano Gotardo’s simmering, intelligent All the Dead Ones. Set in 1899 Sao Paolo, wherein Brazil’s national identity enters the twentieth century whilst still grappling with the seismic social changes which transpired a decade before with the abolishment of slavery (a snippet of dialogue sums it up best wherein a teacher tells her students the country has gone from an Empire to a Republic), the principal cast of characters are mostly women, each navigating a precarious future in a world where the recent social hierarchy has become abolished.

Class, religion, gender, race and sexuality intersect like starry constellations in a series of chamber piece exchanges reflecting the once-ruling class brought to its knees while the freed slave population is still left without a way forward, forced to assume subservient roles with no option for greater opportunities. A fantastically choreographed portrait of systemic racism and the heteronormative social mores which keep utilizing their anachronistic parameters despite changing political and governmental progression, Dutra and Gotardo present a quiet, constrictive melodrama on privilege vs. oppression utilizing those whose intersections are most complex—the women.

In 1899 Brazil, the three women of the Soares family find themselves in a bind when their maid Josefina (Alaide Costa) dies. Maria (Clarissa Kiste), a nun who no longer lives with the family, is concerned because her mother Isabel (Thaia Perez) can’t deal with basic functions while her younger sister Ana (Carolina Bianchi) is exhibiting signs of troubling mental disturbances. Per Ana’s request, Maria courts Ina (Mawusi Tulani), an ex-slave who worked on their coffee plantation, to come to the home to work as a maid with her young son Joao (Agyei Augusto) in tow. Ina is reluctant, but traveling to the Soares home would put her in the same vicinity as her estranged husband Antonio (Rogerio Brito), who had left two years prior to establish a secure place for them in the city. It is Ana’s desire to make Ina perform one of her culture’s rituals on their mother to assist in healing her ailments, much to the vocal chagrin of Maria. While Ina fulfills her obligations in exchange for the assistance in relocating, the ceremony seems to make Ana think that the souls of all the dead slaves who weren’t properly buried are now in the home.

Much like his inventive explorations of class and race in his 2017 werewolf drama Good Manners (co-directed by Juliana Rojos), Dutra continues to address these social realities with blunt force this time around. More Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienega (2001) than Karim Ainouz’s recent, lavish Invisible Life (2019), an impressive array of perspectives is revealed in this fascinating slow burn of contempt and attempted regression. (Of note, it’s important to pay attention to some of the peripheral details of Dutra and Gotardo’s mise-en-scene, which should help elevate the finale, which like the film itself, works on several, complex levels regarding it’s own prescience and the narrative subtexts of ghosts, both human and conceptual). The death of Josefina is the prelude for a swift unraveling of the Soares women, languishing away in their home while their patriarch is forced to live on the estate of the coffee plantation they’ve lost ownership of—notably, he doesn’t seem to have any interest in keeping contact with them.

Clarissa Kiste (who appeared in Dutra’s Hard Labor, 2011) as Maria, is perhaps the only resilient member of her brood, having chosen the cloth she has guaranteed care and a modest amount of agency afforded one of the few social roles acceptable for women in this period. But she’s also forced to watch her mother and sister decline rapidly without someone to take care of their basic needs. Only, it’s more than ‘basic’ needs these women demand of their subordinates, as brilliantly outlined here. In the film’s most confrontational moment, Tulani’s refreshingly brazen Ina fetches her son from the clutches of the Soares family, but as blatantly she calls out her ex-captors for their manipulations, their desperation reveals they aren’t able to wholly comprehend the depths of their inhumanity—this culminates in a formidable visual, a white hand forcing itself to release a black arm. But as we know, following the emancipation of slaves in the United States only several decades prior, there’s more than one way to own another human being and All the Dead Ones speaks as much to the present as it does the past.

Relative newcomer Mawusi Tulani is a standout as Ina, as is Thai Perez as a decrepit matriarch, who can’t seem to survive without complete omnipotence over another human. As the crazed Ana, Carolina Bianchi (who resembles Carol Duarte of Invisible Life), outfitted with choppy bangs and mange of hair reflecting her disturbed state, believes she sees the ghosts of the dead and is often the site of the film’s more egregious transgressions (including her terse responses to mixed-race suitor Eduardo, played by Thomas Aquino).

Noted Manoel de Oliveira star Leonor Silveira as the next-door neighbor, who lends her maid Carolina (Andrea Marquee of Good Manners and Gotardo’s 2012 title The Moving Creatures) to the warped Saores ladies, is entertaining as a witheringly entertaining figure amidst the growing desperation. Lensed by the impeccable Helene Louvart (who also returned to work with Eliza Hittman this year on Never Rarely Sometimes Always), All the Dead Ones is a masterful, intimate saga, potent with themes which are still evident today, except with different words, different terms, but similar expectations as to what kind of people deserve what kind of rewards. And perhaps the only real retribution is knowing those who have the time to reflect on their existence in their tedious hours in their ivory towers will inevitably be forced to confront all those dead ones upon whose backs their privilege was built.

Reviewed on February 23rd at the Berlin International Film Festival – In Competition. 120 Mins.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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