Dry Ground Burning (Mato seco em chamas) is, among the critics I spoke with, the consensus pick for best film at the festival. The public audience with whom I saw the film would probably disagree, as there were at least a dozen walkouts. But fortunately there isn’t an audience prize at Berlinale. Their dispute won’t have been because of extreme gore or sexuality, but perhaps because of its lack. In Dry Ground Burning, emptiness is a virtue.
Consider its premise: fresh from jail, Léa (Léa Alves) joins forces with her half-sister Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who sells gasoline from a makeshift oil refinery in Sol Nascente, on the outskirts of Brasília. While their all-female team sling to bike gangs, an armoured police car circulates the favela in search of scalps. Along the way, the ladies run a political campaign in protest of Bolsonaro, and attempt to reclaim their community from authoritarian patriarchy and globalisation. All in a day’s work for these steely, magnanimous women. One can’t read the minds of the audience at Akademie Der Kunste last night, but hearing this Russ Meyer premise, they would be forgiven for expecting Bacurau 2.
The film is a writer/director collaboration between Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, who also acts as cinematographer (she shot his earlier Once There Was Brasilia in 2017). It is quite elegantly constructed. Its genre signifiers are a way to hold the audience down, but Dry Ground Burning has more in common with documentary. So between the gun toting scenes, we travel around the region: party and barbeque, and, in the most apocalyptic scene, a Bolsonaro rally where the volume is turned all the way up.
The characters of Léa and Chitara, too, are fictional extensions of their actors’ lives. When it holds on faces as they tell stories, the film is enrapturing. Léa and Chitara both have a way with words that transports us into their recollections, both painful and funny. Léa’s stories from the pen are mostly wistful recollections of the three girlfriends in her cell. Chitara, the heart of the film, speaks mostly of family or business. But words can be few and far between. Really, Dry Ground Burning relies on sheer visual language to inject the audience with Sol Nascente, and the hunt for economic and spiritual agency.
One scene abruptly begins on a bus, where a party is taking place: women twerk, a rapper MC’s, and Léa soaks it all in. Then, a cut to a prison bus. Léa was dreaming all along. From that, cut to Léa back at home. Queirós/Pimenta took us into layers of memory in the way it really happens. The long close-up shots invite comparison to Pedro Costa, though when the characters here are dromospherically angled in the corner of the room one goes back to Costa’s beloved Straub-Huillet. They are cut from the same cloth.
None of this is subtle. When the action starts, characters fire guns off screen at unseen adversaries, quite like how Feuillade or Lang would stage such scenes. At one point, a stallion trots past a burning billboard with the faces of our heroes. Zack Snyder used the same metaphor for his Wonder Woman – grow up dudes! These shorthands, which Queirós/Pimenta reach to over and over, have a rhapsodic, cumulative effect which is quite powerful. In the final moments, one wonders why the film isn’t ending. A perfect final shot is followed by another perfect final shot. Does that mean each shot is perfect, or that Quieros doesn’t know how to wrap things up? Frustrating as this can be in the moment, the abundance is this film’s life blood.
The tendency towards docu-fiction hybrids in contemporary cinema might be reaching an endpoint. From Costa to Kiarostami, to Robert Greene, to a dozen other names that I won’t bore you by listing, the festival market thrives on this kind of cinema. The reasons are self-evident: these are reflexive films about themselves and their making, which comforts audiences and critics who lack the cultural context to read these films as anything but a movie. They diversify fiction-heavy festival strands, but by leaning into the frame of a traditional narrative film, they don’t alienate audiences. If something like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was the pinnacle of this trend, then Dry Ground Burning is at least so outlandish in its winks towards science fiction, gangster movies, and worldstar culture, that it lifts the project into a poetry that almost escapes the new convention of the festival film.