IndieLisboa 2024 review: The Survivors (José Barahona)

The Survivors proves itself a better sermon than film, a valuable message articulated by a cinematic object that leaves much to be desired.”

Somewhere in the Atlantic, sometime in the 19th century, a ship has sunk. On nearby land, driftwood washes ashore, and floating bodies soon follow. There’s a man of wealth whose clothes are tattered, a priest pulled down by waterlogged wool, a Brazilian sailor who some call a crook, and two women, mother and daughter, dragging soiled satin behind them. Having survived the waves, they find themselves in a prison of sand and stone, stuck on a beach encircled by steep rock walls. Through DP Hugo Azevedo’s digital black-and-white lensing, the landscape appears razor-sharp, its surfaces as cutting as the shadows across the screen. As for the shipwrecked few, they glow white under the sun, skin varying from sweat slickness to salt-cured dryness. They don’t look like they’ll live much longer, yet they persevere. Indeed, they’re awfully vocal about it.

From a script by writer-director José Barahona and novelist José Eduardo Agualusa, the characters emerge as parabolic entities, representing ideas more than personalities or dramatic forces. It’s not immediately apparent during the first few scenes, but it’s inescapable once a new player drifts into the cove. He’s João Salvador, a name that roughly translates to John Savior, which seems appropriate for someone introduced cross-like, a martyrized Christ fallen from some church’s altar. In the other survivors’ view, however, his dark skin marks him as part of the cargo. Though it had been illegalized in Europe, slave ships still sailed from Africa to the Americas in the mid-19th century, perpetuating the commercial traditions established by Portuguese expansionists centuries before. The older lady, D. Emília, calls herself the man’s owner, shaming him as a treacherous butler who committed the cardinal sin of not dying for his mistress when disaster hit.

It’s a tense scene, akin to a chamber piece displaced on a tropical wasteland, and each white person’s reaction to the Black man serves to illustrate Portugal’s uncomfortable relationship with its colonial past. Destroying the idea of a gentle master, Emília proves herself a cruel woman, demanding João be tied like Prometheus on the rock for the crime of existing in their presence. Inês, the lady’s daughter, is pregnant with the enslaved man’s child, an ally to his plight only while she’s in a position of guaranteed superiority. Similarly, Fradique Mendes is a wealthy man who speaks of anti-slavery beliefs but is still threatened by the presence of a Black man in equal standing to him. The sailor Gregório is pragmatic, willing to tolerate the same person he brutalized days before because, in their sorry situation, every helper is precious. The most interesting and inflammatory reaction comes from the priest, Angelim.

Rather than fall into the long-told lies of benevolent Catholicism, a merciful force in the colonial machine, The Survivors paints the clergyman as one of its most insidious figures. Prone to breaking his vows when the flesh demands, he’s in bed with the aristocracy – quite literally – and holds on to the dictum that Black bodies are inherently inferior, made by God to be the white man’s tools. Between the hypocritical gentility of some and the animal survivalism of others, the priest’s black-and-white monstrosity is almost comforting, a naked provocation that abides by a notion that the remaining film forgets – cinema works better to provoke than to instruct. Rather than a panacea or a proffered solution, the medium often shines brightest when challenging its audience with uncomfortable ideas. It’s not the filmmakers’ job to find solutions or prescribe a cure to the world’s ills. Moreover, acting like it is tends to result in stultifying didacticism. Though it works within worthwhile tensions of historical ugliness and historical memory, The Survivors tends to trip into many of those pitfalls.

That’s not to say Barahona’s work lacks other worthwhile tensions that could blossom as the viewer’s disquiet. The issue is that they’re rarely productive or used to their full potential. Consider the visuals, how the setting and makeup pull for visceral readings, while the costumes are closer to community theater artifice. The chronological incoherence of the latter invokes the sense of a place beyond time, which is a curious approach for a historical reckoning. The cinematography, on the other hand, is caught in a constant negotiation between the landscape’s tactility and the image’s digital crispness. Some superficial elements remind one of Herzog’s Amazonian odysseys, only there the landscape felt alive. Here, it’s evocative, yet limited, submissive to a tighter frame that can be quite beautiful in static tableaux. But, of course, beauty only gets you so far.

Performance-wise, actors clash just as much as the visual properties of their device. Some opt for a declamatory style that can’t help but make one think of the stage, classically trained voices projecting for audiences that aren’t there. Some others prove themselves cinematic animals, with Anabela Moreira’s Emília appearing to be a primordial hunger unleashed on screen, wild hair in tandem with wild eyes, shocked by the sound of the voice’s formal, though untheatrical, cadence. In João Canijo’s cinema, the actress has become the paragon of Portuguese feminine anguish on the big screen, but for Barahona’s camera, she showcases a sharper bite. That said, only one thespian combines and complicates these various facets of the cast, the audiovisual mechanisms, and the text.

She is Zia Soares as Vissolela, a figure of liberated authority that emerges in the picture’s second half, when the survivors escape from the cove and go on a pilgrimage to nowhere, ending up in the fold of a new social order where the former oppressed take power and their oppressors are bound to white slavery. She’d have been a better protagonist, her story more interesting than anything expressed by the predominately white POV of the other figures or João Salvador’s over-symbolic conception. Though many of the issues felt in The Survivors‘ first act remain active in its second movement, the matter of provocation becomes more pronounced than Barahona’s didactic instincts. In allegory, the cineaste proposes a discussion on colonial reparations, a hot topic in current Portuguese politics that has caused much debate and dissent.

The Survivors points to a path for egalitarian order that goes through the punishment of those who have profited from the bondage of others, a formal humiliation that never really manifests in the kind of abuse one might expect. There’s a certain naivete to the eventual idyll, but the subversion of pastoral imagery, so often associated with conservative nostalgia, serves as a sharp reminder that true paradise can only be reached through a step forward, never back. One should look to the past, however, and question what got them where they’re at, the various factors that define the fortune of some and the dispossession of others. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a nation where many still hold dear the false ideas of soft colonialism and gentle fascism. They are comfortable in delusions of expansionist pride, always running away from guilt, true accountability, and reflection. With that conceptual backbone, The Survivors proves itself a better sermon than film, a valuable message articulated by a cinematic object that leaves much to be desired.