A reverent, humbling, and impassioned observation of life among the landless, peasant farmers of the semi-arid Carriri region of Ceará in northeastern Brazil, Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana’s poetic ethnographic documentary Romances de terre et d’eau bears the deep humanism and trenchant, sociopolitical commitment of its venerable producers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Insightfully filmed near the commencement of the town’s nine day, Feast of St. Anne – the patron saint of mothers and childless women (and in a broader sense, fertility) – the film opens to the shot of potters forming and hand painting an assortment of decorative, pastoral clay figures on the dirt floor of a modest, unlit house. In a subsequent establishing sequence, a sprightly octogenarian and water diviner standing at a grazing pasture, Miguel Rodrigues de Barros (affectionately known in the village as Seu Tetel), tells the story of his birth in the context of a terrible drought that had devastated the region in the same year. In a way, the juxtaposition of artisanal clay people and the personal testimony of real-life farmer Seu Tetel, whose identity is similarly rooted in the bounty of the earth, embodies the harsh reality of everyday life among the dispossessed and profoundly marginalized Sertão farming communities – an existence that has been shaped and worn down by a profound connection with a generous, but unforgiving land that has led to a life of nourishment and deprivation, joy and hardship – a way of life, already imperiled by the unpredictability of seasonal harvest, that is further being eroded by increasingly hostile enforcement of land rights, privatization, and commercial development. This sense of silent resilience is similarly reflected in the words of peasant farmer Thiago Pinheiro Gomes who recounts his own haunted childhood, having witnessed the prolonged illnesses and eventual deaths of his two young sisters as a result of their family’s abject poverty following the abandonment of their father (that prevented them from receiving timely, proper medical care), as well as his mother’s implacable guilt (even now some 35 years later) over having been unable to accommodate what would prove to be their deathbed requests for a meager meal of eggs and cassava. Now a father of six children, he supplements his seasonal employment as a day laborer in a sugar cane plantation by working as a sharecropper, reasoning that while the plantation provides him with the occasional means of buying his children clothing and school supplies, farming ensures that his conscience will not be burdened by the guilt that his mother continues to harbor, and that his children, even in their poverty, will not go hungry as his sisters had. For Thiago, a peasant farmer’s integral connection to the land is an unbreakable bond that is both essential and cathartic, a sentiment that is similarly echoed by displaced elderly farmer, João Bosco Ferreira Paz and his Josefa Amara da Silva who, having left the village as an act of impotent protest for an even more uncertain life in a shantytown after a rancher spitefully asserted his land rights by grazing his cattle on João’s planted vegetable garden, wistfully recall their well-worn lives on the fields of the Sertão. But perhaps the most emblematic of the farmers’ complex relationship with a borrowed land that engenders poverty is illustrated by a group of itinerant amateur actors who stage their rustic pageant before appreciative local villagers. Performing in full costume, an actor proudly reflects on the continuity of a cherished cultural legacy instilled by these outmoded staged spectacles, even as he expresses his relief in retaining his anonymity by donning a mask and avoiding the stigma that the troupe is ultimately soliciting charity. It is this paradoxical coexistence of cultural heritage and obsolescence, community and marginalization, impotence and fertility, that is poignantly encapsulated in the film’s closing montage – an attribution of individual names that accompanies the stationary shots of the posed subjects – a captured, privileged moment of intimacy that reflects both the bittersweet validation of a faceless, ennobled people and a fragmentary record of an indigenous culture on the twilight of man-made extinction.
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