Casa Grande


Life is not as carefree as it appears for newcomers Thales Cavalcanti and Bruna Amaya.

Last summer I had the opportunity to see Fellipe Barbosa's debut film Casa Grande (2014) open the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual LatinBeat, a showcase of some of the most cutting edge offerings from across Latin America. The film is an intensely intimate, multi-layered portrayal of a wealthy Brazilian family steadily sliding into financial ruin. Casa Grande (or The Ballad of Poor Jean) is inspired by real events in the lives of the director’s family, who went bankrupt in 2002 while he studied at Columbia University completely unaware of the crisis. During a discussion with program curator Marcela Goglio following the film, Barbosa admitted that the finished product was a re-imagining of the experience; how life could have been had he been a high school student living at home at the time.

The opening sequence sets the pace and tone of the film, which opens on the casa grande (big house). As the score swells, a man sits in a jacuzzi and the opening credits play. He steps out of the water, enters the house, and as he switches off the first set of lights, the music stops. The camera observes from the exterior of the house as the man continues to extinguish lights throughout the first floor, then the second, from left to right and finally the top floor. A light suddenly shines through a small room on the right. A teenage boy's room: his son's. Every meaningful shot pushes the plot along, like a second main character. The camera cuts to the son, Jean (Thales Cavalcanti), sneaking out of the big dark house and arriving at the maid’s quarter, where Rita lives. Within the family drama there is an arc from beginning to end with sexy Rita, and within it, a tale of first love. The film is like an onion, or a snake, shedding layer after layer of skin. Embarrassed by his wealth and his deceitful father, Jean is aching to flee the prison of his crumbling gilded cage. 

Casa Grande also tackles race, questioning and challenging ideas of affirmative action, equal rights and the economy, at times in an understandably awkward way. Race and its social problems is only recently being discussed openly in Brazil. And while these sequences can feel didactic and somewhat heavy-handed, it is certainly a worthwhile and necessary effort. Casa Grande serves as a powerful example of the fact that no one goes through this life unscathed. It is essential to cultivate and nurture relationships so that when the going gets tough, one has a strong support unit to lean on and rebuild with. According to Barbosa, the great takeaway for his family was that misfortune ultimately brought them closer than ever before. For poor Jean, the consequence of financial hardship isn't so rewarding.


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