August Winds (a.k.a. “Ventos de Agosto”) — usually described as Brazilian documentarian Gabriel Mascaro’s first fiction film, though I have read that some of his prior work blurs the line between documentary and fiction pretty thoroughly — contains eight or nine of the most stirring and unusual images I have seen in quite some time. Any other movie would be lucky to have even one of them, but Mascaro doles out masterpieces of scenic construction on the regular. For some, Mascaro’s impeccable “eye” may be the only thing the movie has going for it — the film is largely plotless; its themes relatively submerged — but, while I couldn’t give you a full account of exactly what Mascaro is up to here, I was thrilled by the film’s dialectic between young and old, wind and sea, life and death, existence and extinction.
If that all sounds a little heavy, in Mascaro’s hands, it’s not. Mascaro’s style may be formally austere, composed largely of static camera set-ups and long takes, but the content is often strangely funny. Take, for instance, one of the film’s earliest scenes. We gaze on bronze-skinned, bikini-clad Shirley (Dandara de Morais) as she lies on a skiff on the open sea. The Lewd’s noisy punk scorcher “Kill Yourself” blasts out of the radio. After a minute or so, enough time for the audience to start wondering whether anything at all will happen, Shirley grabs a can of Coca-Cola and begins to pour it onto her skin, rubbing it in like tanning oil. (If this seems bizarre — and it certainly did to me — perhaps it shouldn’t; apparently some people swear by Coke for suntanning.) Later, a body pops out of the water and throws an octopus into the boat.
Here’s some more: In one scene Shirley, who dreams of becoming a tattoo artist but has no one on whom to practice, steals out under cover of darkness to try out her skills on a pig. In another, Shirley and her boyfriend Jeison (Geová Manoel Dos Santos) make love in an open trailer atop a huge pile of coconuts. Later, a meteorologist, played by Mascaro himself, shows up in Shirley and Jeison’s small town to make field recordings of the wind. The town is located in the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, where the northeast and southeast trade winds meet, causing particularly erratic weather. After he dies, carried out to sea by ferocious waves caused by the heightened winds, Jeison takes it upon himself to care for his body, which lies on a table outside of his house; at one point, Jeison holds a tearful late-night vigil before the body as Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You” plays.
I could go on. August Winds is filled with these sorts of indelible scenes. Often, images of death, such as Jeison discovering a human skull while freediving, are immediately undercut by comedic images, such as Jeison and Shirley catching a ride on a school bus full of young kids. August Winds thus plays as a kind of existential comedy, with the specter of death constantly looming over the characters rendering their actions cosmically absurd. Eventually, Jeison’s obsession with the meteorologist’s corpse even encroaches on his relationship with Shirley.
Mascaro’s presence in the film provides a bit of metatextual framing to the material. In one scene, he (as the meteorologist) asks a woman where he might best record the wind. She looks at him like he’s crazy, walks away, and glances directly into the camera. We get the sense that Mascaro must encounter this sort of bafflement all the time in making his films. Similarly, Shirley has moved from the big city to this sleepy little town where the houses don’t even have address numbers to care for her ailing grandmother. Her dreams of becoming a tattoo artist seem wildly out of place in this tiny village. But she pursues this interest while caring for her grandmother, even though her grandmother will die. Shirley, too, will someday die, and yet she persists in practicing her tattooing skills. And Mascaro, the real-life director, will die just as his character dies, and yet he persists in making his films. And, as a news report in the film reminds us, our planet will someday die as well (perhaps sooner rather than later), and yet all of us persist in our daily struggles and strive for our dreams, however small they might seem. And we care for our loved ones in sickness and in death. If we’re lucky, we do it all with a bit of laughter and an eye for the beautiful and the absurd.
In the film’s final image, Jeison builds a bulwark between the ocean and the graves of his family members, who are buried on the beach. The water still flows around the barrier, and it is clear his efforts will be ineffective in protecting their bodies from the waves (particularly since global climate change is eating away at the Brazilian coastline). It is a sad and funny and beautiful image, and it is the perfect metaphor for humanity’s struggle against its own mortality.