Pacified' Review | Tribeca 2020



The Hollywood Reporter
4/24/2020
by David Roone




THE BOTTOM LINE
Flawed but full of soulful feeling.


Director Paxton Winters considers the psychological toll of drug culture and violence in this vivid community portrait of a Rio favela, whose producers include Darren Aronofsky and Lisa Muskat.


[Note: In the wake of the Tribeca festival's postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]

The Brazilian government's efforts in the run-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics to clean up crime in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, a program dubbed "pacification," were part of a widely reported broader sweep to hide the city's poor from international visitors. Paxton Winters' Pacified, an intimate snapshot of one high-risk shantytown community seen through the wide-open eyes of a 13-year-old girl, reverses that push by humanizing its subjects — from the drug lords to the innocents caught in their web. While the overlong film doesn't sustain the surging vitality of its establishing scenes, this is a textured snapshot of complicated lives, imbued with an enveloping sense of place.

Winner of the top competition prize as well as honors for best actor and cinematography at last fall's San Sebastian International Film Festival, Pacified benefits from the American writer-director having been embedded in the Morro dos Prazeres community for some time as the project was coming together. It was conceived as a documentary but evolved into a narrative feature assembled around real-life stories. Casting of nonprofessional locals in many roles adds to the authenticity, notably so with Cassia Nascimento, the stunningly natural performer in the central role of Tati, the eyes and ears as well as the vulnerable heart of the drama.

The opening shot of sweaty morning sun washing in over the sleepy face of Tati in bed signals an arresting visual style that makes sumptuous use of warm natural light, lush color and atmospheric night scenes without ever veering into poverty porn. With sinuous camera movement, cinematographer Laura Merians, whose background is in commercials and music videos, captures the dense tangle of favela dwellings, stacked higgledy-piggledy one on top of another all the way up the mountainside. They are separated by labyrinthine alleys and rooftop passageways and split down the middle by a seemingly endless flight of steps, shown from above in one spectacularly impactful image as the man who may or may not be Tati's father lugs a refrigerator up the hill on his back.

Tati is a teen girl like countless others everywhere, hanging out with her best friend Leticia (Rayane Conciecao), shooting precocious dance videos on her smartphone. She and her young cokehead mother, Andrea (Débora Nascimento), split their time between their own house and that of the woman she calls grandma, Dona Preta (Léa Garcia), whose son Dudu (Raphael Logam) is on the fringes of the local criminal constituency and has an ambiguous relationship with Andrea. To make some cash, her mother regularly sends Tati down into the town with a tray of candy and loose cigarettes to sell.

On one of those evening forays, she watches the closing ceremony fireworks at the Olympic stadium far below, conveying in a single shot the vast distance separating Tati's world from the glittering tourist destination spread out at the foot of the mountain.

When she overhears that Dudu's older brother Jacu (Bukassa Kabengele) is due to be released from prison, Tati immediately wants to know more about the man she has been led to believe is her father. Others wonder if he's going to return to his former position as the crime boss of the community, deposing Nelson (José Loreto), the cocky lieutenant he appointed to run things in his absence.

The impression emerges that unlike cruel, widely feared Nelson, Jacu was a fair and just leader. But when people ask him for help to settle disputes, he insists he's no longer in charge and has no interest in reassuming that power. A somber man, played by Kabengele with a heavy cloak of introspective ruefulness, Jacu just wants to open a pizzeria, making use of a skill he acquired during his 14 years in prison.

The agility of the early storytelling dissipates a little as Winters lingers over the predictably simmering tensions between Nelson, who remains suspicious of the threat to his turf, and taciturn Jacu, who is done with criminal life. This plotline feels hackneyed and the writer-director brings nothing particularly fresh to it. But the fostering of a hesitant connection between Jacu and Tati provides an emotional core that keeps you watching, serving as a counterweight to the girl's erratic bond with tetchy Andrea, which is compromised by the latter's drug habit.

It's to the film's credit that it eschews the usual quick cutting and explosive violence of the gangland drama, mostly keeping the focus more personal, a choice echoed in Beto Villares' moody, melancholy score. But Winters seems to foreshadow a face-off between Nelson and Jacu that doesn't arrive; this creates a slight void in the conclusion, not helped by rushed handling of Nelson's outcome. There’s poignancy, however, in sorrowful developments around Dudu and a live-wire presence in Jefferson Brasil as a smart-mouthed drug dealer whose role ultimately becomes more significant.

Pacified is at its best when it gently probes the developing relationship between Jacu and Tati, both of them products of a psychologically damaging and physically dangerous environment that emerge somehow with their resilient spirits intact. The beautiful final shot is an image full of hope, of Tati's face looking out over the favela's hillside cluster, a milieu into which Winters breathes vibrant life.

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ASC 2020 Rising Stars



Laura Merians Gonçalves
 
“I love being challenged and working with people who challenge me,” says cinematographer Laura Merians Gonçalves. “I like to think through our limitations and thrive. If you have the right collaborators, you can figure out how to make anything happen.”Gonçalves grew up in a family of photographers. “We were always taking photos and looking at photography as art,” she says. Her parents encouraged her to pay attention to light, often steering family conversations toward the subject. “Cinematography is very nostalgic for me. I’m always thinking about my childhood and the spaces I lived in. Memories are my best inspiration.”
During her time at the University of California, Berkeley, she studied philosophy and “started to experiment with lighting and electricity. Something about that world really resonated with me.” After graduating, she started her journey into filmmaking as best boy electric on the 2001 featureBully, directed by Larry Clark and shot by Steve Gainer, ASC, ASK. Gonçalves joined IATSE Local 728 and, later, ICG Local 600, and she credits the unions and her work on features, commercials, music videos and television for her real education. “Whether a job turns out to be gloriously well-received or no one ever sees it, all the work serves as learning experiences,” she says. “You have to embrace less-than-perfect results, and look at them in a positive way so that it transforms you and makes you better. The process is the result I want.”Gonçalves never participated in professional shadowing experiences, but over the years many cinematographers have served as mentors. “I learned so much by watching others do it. Someone who looked out for me early on was the forever kind Ramsey Nickell and, more recently, Ed Lachman, ASC, whose insight and patience I am deeply thankful for. I also wrote many letters to [actor] Steve Martin looking for advice because he’s a philosopher, too, but I haven’t received his reply yet.”See MoreDuring her time at the University of California, Berkeley, she studied philosophy and “started to experiment with lighting and electricity. Something about that world really resonated with me.” After graduating, she started her journey into filmmaking as best boy electric on the 2001 featureBully, directed by Larry Clark and shot by Steve Gainer, ASC, ASK. Gonçalves joined IATSE Local 728 and, later, ICG Local 600, and she credits the unions and her work on features, commercials, music videos and television for her real education. “Whether a job turns out to be gloriously well-received or no one ever sees it, all the work serves as learning experiences,” she says. “You have to embrace less-than-perfect results, and look at them in a positive way so that it transforms you and makes you better. The process is the result I want.”Gonçalves never participated in professional shadowing experiences, but over the years many cinematographers have served as mentors. “I learned so much by watching others do it. Someone who looked out for me early on was the forever kind Ramsey Nickell and, more recently, Ed Lachman, ASC, whose insight and patience I am deeply thankful for. I also wrote many letters to [actor] Steve Martin looking for advice because he’s a philosopher, too, but I haven’t received his reply yet.”
Gonçalves approaches each project with an “anything is possible” attitude. “There are no rules and no absolutes. I love making images I connect with on many levels — emotionally, psychologically, physically. My intentions are to create imagery that illustrates [what I felt] when I read the screenplay. I try to distill the style of the project to a theme in one or two words. For Pacified, it was favela poetry.”


Gonçalves lines up an over-the-shoulder shot. (Photo by Barney Cokeliss)Pacified won two awards at the recent Camerimage International Film Festival: Best Cinemato-grapher’s Debut and Best Director’s Debut (for Paxton Winters). For her work on the film, Gonçalves was also awarded Best Cinematography at the 2019 San Sebastián International Film Festival and Best Cinematography at the Aruanda Film Festival in Brazil.Her additional cinematography credits include the short Solipsist, the Netflix special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, and numerous other shorts, music videos and documentaries.“Something that I would advise to future filmmakers,” the cinematographer says, “is if you have the opportunity to shoot a film in a language you don’t speak, do it! It allowed me to completely focus on the photography and made me realize how few words you need, how pared-down you can be in that way. Language, like lighting, can be kept very minimal and simplified. With some hand signals and three light bulbs, you can shoot a movie.”





 Pacified wins Cinematographer's Debut at Camera Image







Laura Merians wins Best Cinematography for 'Pacificado' at San Sebastian Festival




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The film, produced by Winters, Darren Aronofsky, Paula Linhares, Marcos Tellecheak and Lisa Muskat, also nabbed the best actor award for Bukassa Kabengele and the best cinematography prize for Laura Merians.






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