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The Prodigal Son Returns Home

The Tuber (Dir.: Nicolas Thomé Zetune, Lucas Camargo de Barros, 2024, Brazil/SP) 

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

          Two metaphorical elements impose themselves on The Tuber - the 'illness' and the 'inheritance' - one justifying its formal dynamics and the other rounding off its edges at plot level. The first of these is the pathology experienced by the protagonist. As Thomas Elsaesser has rightly pointed out, contemporary cinema in the auteur field is full of portraits of illnesses and of characters who, to some extent, suffer from a special condition that explains their peculiar way of looking at the world. Ultimately, it is the limits of their cognitive faculties and the altered states of consciousness that justify the work's formal experimentation. The feature film by Nicolas Thomé Zetune and Lucas Camargo de Barros invests in a character who suffers from fatal familial insomnia, a rare genetic disease with no cure that prevents the victim from sleeping. It's true that, in principle, this limitation determines the formal choices of the feature film, but not exclusively in order to submit the world to the protagonist's perception in kammerspiel fashion, or to take advantage of it to generate unconscious and dreamlike allegories in the surrealist manner; these moments do exist (the skull of an ox, the old grandmother who appears as a ghost, the horse that flies, etc.), but they are numerically inferior to those dedicated to, on the contrary, an expansion of consciousness that breaks through the walls of the protagonist's 'self' towards an animistic view of the world and things.

           The Tuber is a film about surfaces rather than psyches, which pays as much attention to the water of a river hitting a stone, amorphous clouds or a statue of St. Sebastian as it does to dramatic close-ups of its cast, and which attests more to a certain moving matter in the world than to the fixed symbologies of representation or the affected gaze of its protagonist. To show a telegram he receives in Lisbon indicating the death of his grandmother, it's less important to see how he perceives the event than to pay attention to a series of 'views' of the city, the mail truck or the mere conditions of the sun. In this sense, if there is any flirtation with the cinematic history of the avant-garde, it may have more to do with this poetic extraction of things undertaken by a Ménilmontant, a Limite or certain filmmakers of the North American avant-garde; filtered through a contemporary kind of animism that finds a correlative in certain examples, such as Memory (which is also about a character who doesn't sleep and begins to see the universe through such a register), than, on the other hand, the interiorizing universe of Lynch, Darronofsky and the likes. It's a film that relies on Todorov's 'strangeness', using the protagonist's condition to justify itself; a 'strangeness' caused by the ghostly power of mundane elements, his 'anima', which finds a strong iconography in the two appearances of the statue of a dinosaur that moves mysteriously. A strangeness that sometimes borders on the comical or the marginal archifalso of a Mojica or Candeias, especially at the level of dramaturgy, in the moments of speech and staging. Ultimately, it's not the character and his condition that justify the images, but the other way around: they find in him an element of representation capable of metaphorizing them. 

          In this sense, the photographic use of super-8 filming, which has been talked about so much, has less to do with the insomniac's lacunar memory, his sensory-motor incapacity to perceive the articulations between the facts of the world or his forgetfulness, and more to do with the attestation of the extemporaneity of The Tuber, the desire to be in front of a time that is both the eternal present of the flesh and no time at all; all the layers of time together and overlapping in accumulation until they are nothing other than pure being there. It lends the movie a very distinctive air that is both anachronistic, from a family record, and futuristic from a sci-fi, the telegram and the flirting app, the statues and the songs on the radio. No matter the place or time, the gaze of Nicolas Thomé Zetune and Lucas Camargo de Barros transforms everything into a reliquary. However, all this perceptive power that is certainly the great achievement of The Tuber often comes hits the wall against an excess of explanations of the elements that drive its narrative development. Not only does it have to begin and end with the reiteration of its synopsis, but at all times it invests in very traditional resources of continuity, telling us a story with straightforwardness and clarity - when it flashbacks or projects a character's memory, it provides the elements so that the viewer never gets confused in their 'location' in the space-time of the fictional world erected. Even the metalinguistic scene, showing the actors talking about the movie they are making, serves less as a tactic of opacity than of transparency, to attest to the data of the narration. The extemporaneous impetus of the images is reconciled with a somewhat classic linear sequence, with one obstructing the power of the other. This is because the major ethos of the feature film is not that of an iconoclastic enfant terrible, but of a great and practically impossible conciliation of opposites.

           This narrative framework of The Tuber hints at the somewhat entropic but conciliatory discourse of the work, which is as openly conciliatory as the official discourse of the political time to which it is openly adhering, that of the new Lula government. There is an inheritance and a journey back to his homeland, a burden of genetic illness and a readjustment with the family past. Three decades earlier, G. had been expelled from Andradina, a conservative town in the countryside of São Paulo, by his grandmother's authoritarianism after discovering his homosexual love for W. He went to live in Portugal, and returned after the news of his grandmother's death, a victim of fatal family insomnia. As the sole heir to the rural properties, G. is forced to stay on the land and move back to his homeland, when his clinical symptoms begin, diagnosed as the same illness that led to her death. The theme of the exile returning to deal with the burden of the family inheritance - the son returning home - is uncommon in recent decades of Brazilian cinema, but in the years of 'retomada' that immediately preceded the first Lula government, it appeared in somewhat more commercial titles such as Lavoura Arcaica (2001), Abril Despedaçado (2001) or O Príncipe (2002). The response given to the political impasse and the scourge of Brazilian conservatism here is somewhat more hopeful, sometimes even fantastical: the grandmother repents, the protagonist rediscovers the love he can now assume, the illness is cured and the reconciliation with the past is finally concluded. One wonders if all this is just an optimistic daydream, but the title image provides a fair measure of how the film wants to see the country's heritage and past: more like a 'tuber' than a 'root', a power to be pulled out of the ground and which grows from the top down (and therefore transforms itself each time) rather than a distant, deep-rooted root that will always grow in the same direction and produce the same fruit.

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