Berlinale 2022 review: Mato Seco em Chamas (Joana Pimenta & Adirley Queirós)

“An enthralling portrait of urban decay and the tenacity of the human spirit, as facilitated by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós, who put together quite an intimidating but brilliant work of socially charged cinema.”

A distant drone of machinery gradually evolves into a thunderous roar – the combination of motorcycles speeding down the deteriorating streets of working-class Brazil, and the tools used by those who are secretly drilling for oil to be refined into gasoline make for a deafening aural landscape, which spurs the story of two women in one of the country’s many rural metropoles, also known as favelas, occupied by those who have very little option other than to find alternative means to make a living. Their lives are captured in Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning), an enthralling portrait of urban decay and the tenacity of the human spirit, as facilitated by Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós, who put together quite an intimidating but brilliant work of socially charged cinema. They present us with an unsettling portrayal of the urban landscape of a city driven by industrial activities, and where the rumble of machinery can either evoke feelings of terror-fueled dread or serve as an opportunity for those with the resourcefulness and ambition to fight back at the very institutions that sought to oppress them in the first place by taking advantage of their challenging circumstances.

Perhaps the most integral theme explored throughout Mato Seco em Chamas is that of femininity, and the redefinition of the role of women in contemporary society. Male characters are merely peripheral to this story, with the focus being squarely on the women. They quietly command this small community in lieu of their male counterparts, whether it be as social leaders that guide the proverbial flock of working-class citizens, or those that engage in illegal activities, not for the sake of their own wealth, but as a means to redistribute it into the community, which would essentially be far more destitute without these unstable and necessary streams of income. The socio-cultural context of this film is established at the start, where we see a contrast between the harsh laws the Brazilian authorities put on the dangerous drug trafficking trade (which saw multiple people being sent to prison), and how their roles were soon occupied by the women that were left behind. Two in particular are the focus of this film – one a recently released convict who spent nearly a decade in prison for a drugs charge, and the other a resourceful young gasolineira, who taps into the oil supply flowing beneath their town and turns it into gasoline, which she then sells to the biker gangs that offer compensation in the form of substances and protection. Life is not easy for these women, especially when they find their lives taking place in between the machinery, whether it be physical tools of industry, or the more abstract, heartless mechanisms used by their government – whether this is for protection or control is open for interpretation.

These complex themes form the foundation for the entire film, especially in how the directors are exploring the social and cultural imbalance within contemporary Brazil. Not only does Mato Seco em Chamas focus on a poverty-stricken community, but also it looks at the role women play in these groups. The characters exist in a situation where anonymity is preferable for most people, since it allows them to blend into the background, which can be a blessing in a community where violence and bureaucratic hostility keep many people under authoritarian control. There is a level of gritty realism to this film that allows it to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, constructed along narrative guidelines, but assimilating documentary elements into it, such as the use of non-professional actors essentially playing themselves. Several of their conversations are directed towards the camera, almost as if they are trying to make it known that the characters within the context of this film are aware of the encroaching perspective of the audience, who peer into their lives in a way that is best described as voyeuristic. It becomes increasingly difficult to know where reality ends and the fiction begins, with the directors making good use of these ambiguities that come from an artistic hybrid, a blend of conventions drawn from both sides of the cinematic spectrum, colliding to form a fascinating combination of ideas and techniques, finding the unconventional beauty and unexpected inspiration behind working-class squalor, and the people who reside within it.

At 153 minutes, Mato Seco em Chamas is certainly a lengthy film, but it never appears laborious or dull. The directors use every moment afforded to them to present the audience with fascinating glimpses into the lives of these women, who go about their day searching for ways to survive against the backdrop of hostile social and cultural oppression. This is explored through their extensive conversations, in which they reflect on their past experiences. Eventually, we find ourselves becoming lost in the world that the film presents, the hypnotic allure of Pimenta and Queirós’ portrayal of the everyday lives and routines of these people making for an enthralling and genuinely insightful demonstration of the deeply troubling circumstances a large portion of the population continue to face. While it may not offer solutions, the film does frame these questions in a creative way, using the razor-thin boundary between fact and fiction as a buffer to experiment with style and content, provoking conversation and stirring the kind of thought that only a solid, meaningful social drama can evoke. This is especially true when we consider how the film builds itself upon guiding the viewer through this uncomfortable, disconcerting world in which ordinary people demonstrate their willingness to survive, regardless of the cost, with the prospect of freedom vastly outweighing the consequences they are bound to face as a result of their steadfast rebellion.