‘Memory House’ Review: Seeking a Niche Between Present and Past

While I don’t exactly agree that the worst of times generate the most compelling art, political turmoil can certainly inspire some of the angriest work. Case in point: the recent surge of class-conscious films by a number of Brazilian directors, such as Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Bacurau”), responding to the government’s austerity policies and its willful neglect of the country’s cultural heritage.

“Memory House,” by the filmmaker João Paulo Miranda Maria, follows suit in somber and surreal fashion, pitting an aging Indigenous Black man from the rural North against the xenophobic inhabitants of an Austrian enclave in the South.

Captured by the cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta in menacing slow zooms and long, contemplative shots, the film follows Cristovam (the renowned actor Antônio Pitanga), an unfortunate outsider toiling away in a sterile-white milk factory where the employees are overtly likened to the livestock.

Stoically withstanding an onslaught of racist encounters — the most devastating of which involves the killing of his three-legged pet dog by a group of white teenagers — Cristovam stumbles upon an abandoned house filled with folkloric relics of his cultural past, which prompt jarring hallucinations that occasionally have violent consequences.

Better as a mood piece than a political statement, “Memory House” superficially nods to the bloviating politicians and coldblooded capitalists who dictate the lives of people like Cristovam. As he reconnects with his roots, eventually donning a full bull costume in an act of spiritual reclamation, his white neighbors take on an increasingly homogeneous appearance, suggesting an authoritarian hereafter.

Trapped in a hopelessly alienating world, Cristovam would rather buck than surrender; a fatal end would seem inevitable, but wisely, Miranda Maria pulls back the reins with a glimpse of empathy that teases a potential way forward.

Memory House
Not rated. In Portuguese and German, with subtitles. In theaters and on virtual cinemas.

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