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Tragedy in a minor key

Caru Alves de Souza's first feature-length film addresses social issues from a subjective point of view

Helena (Rita Barata) on the left and Caio (Giovanni Gallo), below, characters in De menor: Conscious ambiguity

PUBLIC DOMAIN Helena (Rita Barata), character in De menor: Conscious ambiguityPUBLIC DOMAIN

The challenge director Caru Alves de Souza set for herself in her first feature film, De menor (Minors), scheduled for release in early 2014, was to address frequent issues in the debate about Brazilian society, but without focusing on the easy answers that most films provide. The film is about minors in trouble with the law and a punitive State that does not fulfill its most basic functions. Instead of certainties and condemnation, De menor opts for ambiguity and puts aside the institutional viewpoint to focus on the subjective repercussions of these “larger” issues.

“Brazilian society judges very easily, so I decided to create situations in which the viewer and the characters don’t have the full capacity to judge,” says Souza.  “I created situations in which they could be wrong.” The effect of these choices has proven powerful—in October, De menor shared the prize for best feature film at the Rio Festival with O lobo atrás da porta (The wolf behind the door) by Fernando Coimbra. “The film succeeds, in a very well thought-out and expressive way, in preventing the social tragedy of the juvenile offender from becoming a spectacle,” says filmmaker Eduardo Escorel, coordinator of the graduate documentary film program at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

Caio (Giovanni Gallo), below, characters in De menor: Conscious ambiguity

PUBLIC DOMAIN Caio (Giovanni Gallo), character in De menorPUBLIC DOMAIN

The story narrated in the film underwent a research and transformation process until it achieved what Escorel defined as “a sensitive fictional transfiguration” of the administration of justice in Brazil. Souza’s first contact with the themes of the film was through the real stories of a cousin who works as a public defender in the city of Santos (SP). Among other things, the filmmaker was impressed with the personal involvement between the lawyer and the juvenile offenders. She managed to get permission to attend some hearings, noted that “the stories repeat and there are no happy endings,” and the minors were mostly black and poor. Initially, the idea was to polarize the script between the lawyer and one or several of the offenders who she came to know professionally.

Intimate antagonist
In dramaturgical terms, determinism and obviousness were a risk with this approach. Souza thought it would be interesting to reduce—or eliminate—the distance between the lawyer and the defendants. Helena’s (Rita Batata) dilemmas in relation to the juvenile offenders reached the ideal point of subjectivity when her brother, Caio (Giovanni Gallo), who had been a secondary character in the first version of the script, was transformed into a teenager suspected of a crime and under investigation, although he is white and middle class. Caio becomes a kind of intimate antagonist (he and Helena are orphans and live together in the same house). “Their stories intertwine,” explains Souza. “We eliminated the possibility that the movie would be about an idealistic lawyer who defends people who have nothing to do with her reality.” At one point, Helena attempts to use class privileges to try to convince the judge (Caco Ciocler) to not incarcerate her brother.

The change in the plot led Souza to seek a collaborator, co-writer Fábio Meira. In order for the narrative to take the viewer through the same conflicts as the lawyer, her point of view is always shown (except in one scene, which may or may not be a projection of the character). “Helena begins the film looking outward and does not realize that her inner world is falling apart,” says Escorel. “Souza used great visual indicators, showing the character facing the ocean in the opening, then looking inward towards her own body in a bathtub at the end.”

Helen’s disorientation throughout the film was constructed by the team in detail. The staging and photography (by Jacob Solitrenick) are built on areas of light and shadow, often making the viewer uncomfortable.  “The camera sticks to the character, the views are tight, reinforcing the idea that our perception of the world is always partial,” says Souza.

The viewer is allowed to understand things only bit by bit. “In the beginning, the relationship between Helena and the boy could be anything,” says Escorel. The scenes between the defender, the judge and the prosecutor (Rui Ricardo Diaz) are also highly ambiguous. Professionally, these characters would be expected to experience friction, but, due to their constant contact, they have a routine and affectionate relationship. In order to portray the tension in these scenes, each character’s dialog was shot entirely separately, then assembled using an “exchanged glances” approach.

The assembly phase served as evidence of the treatment adopted in the script and during filming. “Time is frayed on purpose, but the film had to be fat-free, concentrating on the two characters,” says Souza. The final version was cut to 77 minutes. The lean format lent even more strength and meaning to the tensions in the plot. “It is as if society as a whole is crumbling,” says Escorel.