Rite of Passage: Renée Nader Messora and Joāo Salaviza’s “The Dead and the Others”
In the cosmologies of indigenous Brazilian societies, the shaman occupies a privileged position, standing as a vector connecting the living with the dead, human with non-human worlds. For the Krahô people who inhabit the northeast area of the state of Tocantins, the shaman is unique in his ability to sense the presence of mecarõ (spirits), to cure sickness, and to place curses upon his enemies.
In Renée Nader Messora and João Salaviza’s Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner The Dead and the Others (2018), we meet a young Krahô man, Ihjãc (Henrique Ihjãc Krahô), on his way to becoming a shaman, a mantle passed down to him by his recently deceased father, but one that he is loath to take on. It is a destiny from which he cannot escape, as his uncle informs him, and his fate is confirmed when Ihjãc is visited by an ominous macaw and immediately falls ill — a sure sign that his transformation has begun. A husband and father himself, Ihjãc’s troubles stem from his unwillingness to part ways with his dead patriarch, with whom he shares a mystical encounter by a moonlit lake in the film’s opening scene: a log thrown into the water immediately bursts into flame, making it clear that the elder has not been properly laid to rest.
What is first underwritten here with an instantly recognizable Boonmee-esque aesthetic signature quickly shifts in tone, and a more consistently realist register is employed in service of presenting the local particularities of Ihjãc’s predicament. In order to forget his forebear, the son must carry out the customary funerary feast, after which point melancholia can be successfully channeled into mourning. The Krahõ practice a form of scorched earth agriculture that involves the clearing of land by fire so that it might be cultivated once more, and their kinship system appears to follow suit: until all traces of the previous shaman have been eradicated from the collective memory, it will be impossible for the tribe to progress.
Attempting to evade his duty, Ihjãc flees to a nearby town, where he elects to remain until the persistent macaw forgets his existence. Presenting to a doctor with symptoms brought on by the guilty evasion of his rite of passage, Ihjãc is declared a hypochondriac, and the indigenous support center urges him to return home. Although at first presented at a complete remove from his life in the village — courtesy of a long tracking shot that bridges the two worlds — in these scenes we witness the young man’s familiarity with all manner of modern appurtenances: he can play Street Fighter, and knows the lyrics to a popular forró song, for example.
It is in the town too that The Dead and the Others offers a striking chance encounter between the hermetic world of its disinterested protagonist, and a tragic event that would shock all of Brazil. As the camera focuses on a TV screen, we see Palmeiras triumphing 1–0 over Chapecoense, a game that would clinch the 2016 Campeonata for the São Paulo team, but which would take on a different meaning for Chape: the very next day, all but three of the team members were tragically killed in a plane crash en route to Medellin. Fleeting images and sounds in the scheme of things here, perhaps, but nevertheless a sequence that crystallizes the particular contingencies of the film’s production process, and locates an episode of inimitable national cultural transition within Ihjãc’s intimate life story.
On the other hand, for all the specificity of the Krahô system of knowledge, the narrative elements assembled here are more or less already present in Salaviza’s films made in his native Portugal: for Ihjãc’s stifling experience in the village, see the tattoo artist under house arrest in the Palme d’Or-winning short, “Arena” (2009); for the incommensurable gap between the presentations of village and town, see “Cerro Negro” (2012), which divides itself evenly between domestic and prison life; for the premature handing down of patriarchal responsibility, see 14-year-old David’s fearful anticipation of his grandfather’s death in the debut feature Montanha (2015).
The most obvious point of difference here is the communing of ethnographic study and fictional story on the same plane, which also allows the central focus — the death of the father — to speak to a genocidal history that encompasses the massacre of the Krahô in the 1940s, and their continued struggles today. In crafting a somewhat familiar narrative from complex social and historical materials, Messora and Salaviza’s film avoids the neat cross-cutting dialectic between Amerindian shamanism and the “magic” of urban technology recently depicted in Luiz Bolognesi’s Ex-Pajé (Ex-Shaman, 2018). But it never quite reaches the heights of Iracema: Uma Transa Amazônica (Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna, 1975) or Serras da Desordem (Andrea Tonacci, 2006), classic accounts of indigenous dislocation that in their own ways build on the tensions between documentary and fiction. That said, there is more than enough to admire in the sensitive and patient handling of the material and of the non-professional actors here, as the singularity of the shaman is transmuted into a larger tale of trepidation, fate, and of the atomized world we all inhabit.
The Dead and the Others had its world premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it won an Un Certain Regard Jury Prize.