Tallinn 2022 review: River of Desire (Sérgio Machado)

“A beautiful document of working-class Brazil and the people who inhabit it, as filtered through the perspective of a director who has an implicit understanding of all the details that make these stories so compelling.”

Bodies of water have always been profoundly cinematic – there is something so compelling about the steady flow of a river, or the ebb and flow of the crashing waves, that speaks to the artistic consciousness in a way that very few other parts of the natural world can achieve. Sérgio Machado uses this concept as the starting point for River of Desire (O Rio do Desejo), in which he tells the captivating and heartbreaking story of a trio of brothers who exist in relative harmony in a small town sitting on the banks of the Amazon River, despite leading very different lives. They find their relationship put to the test when one of them marries an outsider, which causes their delicate familial balance to fall into disarray, leading to endless arguments and a tragic conclusion in which violence is proven to be the only language they are capable of understanding. A beautiful document of working-class Brazil and the people who inhabit it, as filtered through the perspective of a director who has an implicit understanding of all the details that make these stories so compelling, River of Desire is a masterful examination of the darker side of the human condition, and a quiet and reflective meditation on the state of the contemporary world. This is shown as far more bleak than we would want to imagine, especially when viewed through the lens of these downtrodden individuals whose primary goal is ultimately to make a living in a hostile and challenging world.

The theme of desire is unsurprisingly the central propellant of this film – but rather than taking a one-dimensional approach to the concept, it dares to look at a few different definitions, offering unique observations that not only are there numerous kinds of desire, but they can also intersect in surprising and unsettling ways. Considering so much of the story is propelled by the lead characters’ adoring relationship, it’s clear that there is a degree of complexity in how the director explores carnal cravings. There are some elegant but passionate sequences involving different characters throughout the film indicating the depth of lust that simmers beneath the surface of their sexual encounters, whether long-term relationships or brief encounters that are beyond meaningless, existing purely to satiate some internal quandary or longing for human connection through sensory stimulation. This contrasts sharply with the more abstract theme of the desire to escape – nearly every character in this film has a yearning to abandon their working-class lives and set in motion a plan to entirely leave their lives behind, which manifests in the boat that serves as the central motif, the vessel that supposedly contains the promise of freedom. Machado approaches these ideas through a creative and memorable perspective that interweaves the two main themes of desire to the point where they feel entirely symbiotic. He uses them as the basis for this provocative and revealing social realist drama, one dedicated to unearthing the mysteries of the past, reconciling it with the present and the idealized future that is fervently craved by these characters in their incessant desire to start anew, not realizing the perils that come with hastily changing course and not resolving the nagging loose ends they leave behind.

Through the discussions on desire and the role it plays in defining these characters, we start to decode the deeper meanings that pulsate throughout the film. River of Desire is a poignant and often quite harrowing depiction of brotherhood, which sits at the heart of the film. Machado is exploring a unique family, composed of three brothers, each one distinct, but who are drawn into perilous situations as a result of a new addition to their family, which derails their previously consistent life. The director paints a vivid portrait of a family united by a special bond, but one that is also vague, since we never come to fully understand any of these characters, their ambiguities being one of the reasons we are so entranced by this film. Once discord enters their already-fragile dynamic, their own individual quandaries guide the film to some truly dark places, from which there seems to be little chance of escape. Like the boat that serves as the vessel for escape for the protagonists, the characters are all on an expected journey, undergoing a voyage of self-discovery, weathering dangerous and unpredictable terrain that begins to grow more perilous as they venture further out into the unknown. Some of the subtext is quite heavy-handed, but it works in context, providing us with a compelling portrait of a brotherhood that gradually begins to erode as ego and psychological distress (no doubt caused by their harrowing surroundings) begin to take hold of a family in rapid existential and mental decline.

Numerous thematic and narrative threads hold River of Desire together and allow it to be a poignant, complex exploration of the human condition, one that doesn’t avoid having serious conversations or showing the struggles endured by the characters in vivid detail. Comfort is not necessarily a concern for Machado, who places us in a position where we are voyeurs peering into the lives of these characters in some of their most vulnerable moments, watching as they undergo the search for human connection, which is shown to be worryingly sparse in this nightmarish version of the world in which Machado situates the story. While there are several very effective moments of bold emotion, the film is at its best when it is working with more intimate details. The performances are uniformly good and contribute to the overall tone of the film – and the actors understand how to strike the perfect balance between verbal and physical aspects of their performance, which creates vibrant, intriguing characters that are as strong as the film they inhabit. A film filled with longing glances and broken promises, River of Desire looks at the lives of characters who are confronted with the temptation to change course, but who are singularly unaware of the perils that normally accompany such scenarios. It acts as a meditation on deep existential themes, tender in its more human moments, but never shying away from examining moments of genuine darkness. All of which forms the foundation for this disquieting and peculiar portrait of people experiencing existential crises and embarking on a metaphysical journey into an uncertain future, which only serves to add complexity to this provocative and unsettling drama.