Cannes 2023 review: The Buriti Flower (Renée Nader Messora & João Salaviza)

The Buriti Flower is a magnificent examination of culture and the perceptions that surround it, taking us on a thrilling and thought-provoking journey into the past, as told by the people whose lives form the foundation for this stunning film.”

A group of Krahô villagers stand in a circle, basking in the moonlight. They chant as the camera captures their traditions, positioning the audience close enough to capture their expressions, but far enough to not feel voyeuristic. These are the first moments of The Buriti Flower, in which directors Renée Nader Messora and João Salaviza tell a story that blurs the boundaries between the past and the present, examining the lives of a group of native Brazilians as they recount their past, while working their way towards a future that seems not to include them and their traditions, the unfortunate by-product of the modern world’s tendency to dismiss those who cannot keep up with progress, often even outright disposing of them entirely. In a beautiful film that luxuriates in the splendour of a culture that holds firmly onto its traditions, combined with an active attempt at social commentary, the two directors work in tandem to create a vibrant and moving portrait of the ambiguous space between the past and present, as seen through the eyes of the people whose very existence is often called into question by modern perspectives. A series of connected vignettes carefully curated by the directors as they engage critically with certain themes, The Buriti Flower is a moving and deeply profound portrait of a culture on the brink of extinction, captured beautifully by the empathetic gaze of two directors who understand the gravity of this project.

The Buriti Flower is a film that echoes the work of Jimmy Nelson, whose photography book Before They Pass Away intentionally aimed to capture indigenous communities, providing a record of their existence, which erodes at varying paces as a result of the modern world. The act of preserving culture is a pressing issue, albeit one that is often overlooked by a society driven by progress. This film aims to change that in a small but substantial way, not only capturing the traditions of the Krahô population, but allowing them to tell their own story. The directors collaborate with several members of the community, who are credited as the writers of the film and who play themselves, guiding the narrative as they recount the past and discuss their perceptions and experiences in the modern world. There are various visual and linguistic interludes that cast a wide net over the Krahô, situating them as a culture caught between tradition and modernity. The film focuses on their efforts to remain true to their customs and culture (which propels their lives), while also not avoiding the march of time, which is inevitable, and has been shown to be destructive to those who hold onto the past with too tight a grip. Most of these elements are quite subtle – the image of a cellphone being used in the jungle, or the blending of traditional Krahô language with contemporary Portuguese, all of which blend together to create a fascinating bridge between generations.

Messora and Salaviza work to play the part of mere observers, allowing the Krahô themselves to tell the story, including celebrations of the beauty of their traditions, as well as harrowing accounts of the violence of colonialism that caused their loss of identity, which is renegotiated throughout this film. Over the course of The Buriti Flower, we see the impact of tradition encroaching onto modernity, and vice versa, which is the central theme that pushes the story forward and gives it a deeply self-reflective tone. From its first moments, we can immediately tell that this is not a conventional film, and in both style and storyline there are many factors that go into defining this as a singular, unique work. Visually striking in a way that is beautiful but never excessive, the film moves with a mesmerizing rhythm – the images are stunning in their simplicity, and the sounds of nature create unforgettable melodies that all make for a hypnotic experience which places the viewer in a trance as we explore the world through the eyes of these characters. This all coalesces in a film that is essentially driven by atmosphere more than anything else, with the immersive camera work and arresting tone of the story creating an emotional, beguiling depiction of the Krahô people and their beautiful culture.

A quiet and compelling rumination on traditions, as seen through the perspective of two of the most exciting voices in contemporary Brazilian cinema, The Buriti Flower is a daring and provocative document that captures the beauty and sadness embedded deep within the culture represented on screen. The directors warrant credit for the sensitivity with which they approach this story – it takes effort to explore these themes without coming across as exploitative or inauthentic, especially when it comes to presenting these subjects to a wider audience that may not have knowledge or experience of the culture, or the capacity to immediately understand why this is such an important work. Not only does this film tell a story that is simultaneously beautiful and harrowing, but it serves as a timeless document of the Krahô population, a chance for their history to be recorded for posterity. It may not be the definitive text on the culture’s history, and it does depend mostly on oral narratives in forming its identity, so it can never be entirely thorough – but instead, it manages to be incredibly compelling and poetic in its beauty, which sharply contrasts with the darker subject matter, which the directors navigate with compassion and genuine interest. A powerful work that presents a small but pivotal moment in history, The Buriti Flower is a magnificent examination of culture and the perceptions that surround it, taking us on a thrilling and thought-provoking journey into the past, as told by the people whose lives form the foundation for this stunning film.

(c) Image copyright: Karô Filmes / Entre Filmes