Berlinale 2019 Review: Querência (Helvécio Marins Jr.)

The word querência describes the part of the bullring in which the bull feels safest and strongest. In his book Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said of the querência, “It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on.” In director Helvécio Marins Jr.’s second film Querência, his lead character Marcelo resembles this bull, also looking for a place to feel safe after having his life thrown into disarray. Based on the Spanish verb for ‘to desire’, the word also expresses a certain neediness, and Marins Jr. laces this with the melancholia through which Marcelo views a Brazilian countryside that is on the brink of change from traditional life, as political turmoil and a fractured sense of community slowly creep in.

Marcelo di Souza is a cowboy in the Brazilian pampa. His life is a simple one, but it’s a life he loves. Until one night a hundred of his employer’s cattle are stolen at gunpoint while he is in charge. The event shakes up Marcelo’s life and creeps into his own personal querência, the place and lifestyle that was familiar to him and in which he felt safe. He becomes depressed and quits his job, together with his friend Kaic switching careers to master of ceremonies at rodeo shows. In his new role he pays hommage to the solidarity of the rural communities and the cowboy lifestyle. The bull has found his sweet spot again.

Still, one can’t shake the feeling that Marcelo is one of a dying breed, and that something valuable is on the verge of being lost. Representative of a simple life, Marcelo’s community-driven statement, “White, black, Indian, here we are all Brazilians,” in one of his rousing introductions at the rodeo, starkly contrasts with the social and political situation in the Brazil of Bolsonaro. While Querência is rarely overtly political, Marins Jr. does hint at the dire situation in his country through Marcelo’s speeches and through the warmth and love the director clearly shows for rural community life where indeed everyone is equal.

Also apparent is the fragility that underlies the image of the cowboy as the pinnacle of masculinity. Marcelo’s doubts, his depression following the robbery, and his awkwardness around women (including his big-city sister staying over for a couple of weeks) all gnaw at him and at our idea of a cowboy’s hyper-masculinity. The film is an honest look at a man who is seeing his bedrock slowly slip from under him. Querência would make an interesting doubleheader with Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, another film that looks at cowboys and rodeos but at the same time digs into the myth of their masculinity.

Marins Jr. also shares with Zhao the patience to let scenes breathe and to eschew the dramatic. Even within the 90-minute runtime he takes plenty of time to adjust the viewer to the rhythms of his protagonist’s life, and when it comes to the most dramatic plot point (the actual robbery, told in several flashbacks), he films it from far away and in the dark. The focus lies on the impact, and not on the drama itself. Helping this focus is his cast of performers, all amateurs putting in naturalistic but muted performances. In particular, Marcelo di Souza as the lead and Kaic Lima as his friend exude authenticity, which at times gives Querência an almost documentary feel. And perhaps that is in part what Marins Jr. is aiming for: exploring a community and lifestyle that is slowly crashing into the modern world. Querência is a warm and loving document of a man trying to find a place where he can feel safe and strong, his own querência.