The Moving Creatures (O Que se Move), by Caetano Gotardo (Brazil, 2012)

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Half-open window
by Fabio Andrade

The Moving Creatures, Caetano Gotardo’s debut feature film, begins with Pedro (Wandré Gouveia) seated in bed, with his back turned to a half-open window. That opening allows a poisonous breeze to come in and spread across the whole film. We’ll see this window again later, but by then it’ll be wide open, letting the sunshine in on an already empty, uninhabited room. This first shot, however, is not exactly the one that precedes the empty room with the window open in the decisive moment of the first three stories – the forbidden image the movie won’t actually show – but it serves a similar purpose, marking origin and destiny as a same point in a same circle: what we’ll see between these two moments in this bedroom is a last day, a prosaic parting ritual that ignores the proper etiquette of introducing itself first… a masked ball that the characters themselves don’t even know they are in.

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For now, however, it is just a kid sitting in a dimly lit room, looking in, with nothing to do. The shot lingers, reveling in this moment of suspension, in this attempt at filming boredom itself, until his mother comes in and snaps him out of glaring into nothingness. It’s his last day of vacation and in adolescence the same vacations we grow to romanticize in adulthood drag like a long, long wait (in part, much like adolescence itself). This issue is raised in the essential question that lies unaware of the meaning of the word “routine”: what does the swan do to occupy his time? The Moving Creatures starts in the last day of vacation, in the last year before college, because everything here is last… every moment of wait by a lake is just a ritual of preparation before entering an adulthood that this protagonist will find a way to avoid, in his perverse and fatal embrace of eternal childhood, before it is time to get to work – to jump in the water, eat, sleep and do it all again – and it’s no longer possible to roam around like a zombie (like his mother says, in the first dialogue in the film).

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Nobody stays too long with nothing to do. Not the boy, nor the swan, nor the movie. The Moving Creatures leaves the apartment with the certainty that it will need to come back, but it takes a walk in the park first. There’s a rohmerian floatation in the first part of this triptych that doesn’t come only from the conversations, the long walks, the young faces and the choice of location. In fact, what resembles Eric Rohmer’s films is the possibility of a shift in focus: when two teenagers share a disinterested conversation (and, at the eyes of a more traditional dramaturgy that the movie flirts with without really adhering to, uninteresting as well), there is chance (for the film and for the spectator) to look around and engage with other things, like the colors that stick to the retina (Rohmer used to say that his films were often born out of a color), details in the wardrobe or a certain sound the knees make. What stays with us from this last day of leisure is a blue hoodie and a conversation about the effort in seeing a lamp post in the street and thinking only about the lamp post, until it’s past… to think about the post and nothing else until you get close and realize that the post is rusty, and then think about rust and nothing else. What stays with us from this last day is the possibility of looking up and seeing the rusty branches of a tree that, announcing the future that awaits those characters, peels off its bark. “It’s all the same thing”, the girl says. And the ability to, during a conversation, seeing with eyes closed… to focus in order to see what is not there.

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This walk in the part, though, will not be exactly a walk in the park. There’s some stiffness in the mechanics of the scenes that bring a strange discomfort – the rush over the much needed time (for us and for characters that want to be believable) between thinking a phrase and saying it; the imprecision in a choice of tone that seems lost a few steps above naturalism, but a couple inches below stylization; the feeling that much of what is said was perhaps written to be read, not heard. That happens until a game of statue evokes the anti-Lumière curse of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening – which couldn’t be more distant from the cinema of Rohmer – and in that moment The Moving Creatures lets loose its unheinmlich, with the one moral of the story that can come from its inevitable destiny, from an honest conversation over dinner, from one last night in front of the computer: appearances can be deceiving.

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Then comes the police, and that sweet and faltering film strips us out of the outfit of the blind, generous mother with a sense of violence we until then had no reason to suspect or foresee. There are demons hidden off screen, reaffirming an old popular saying that in a way translates the vacant quality in those eyes staring at nothing in the beginning of the film: an empty mind is a devil’s workshop. In that brief interval between the mask falling off and the face being revealed, The Moving Creatures finds its tone, its rhythm and its melody: a song that purges the melodrama of a mother who survives her own son, that sings that he liked the things they said he liked, but he also liked other things, for sure. In that musical interlude frozen like Landscape in the Mist, comprised of dances that do not affirm more than the synchronicity of small movements, comes the certainty of being before one of the most beautiful recent Brazilian films.

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There’s an ever-present artifice in The Moving Creatures: the shift from one story to another (or from speech to song; from diegetic sound to all out musical interventions) is always fluid, in visual or sound cross fade, creating a feeling of continuity, rather than rupture. We land on the second story of the film carrying the impression that we’ve never really left the first one… that, even though briskly interrupted, one carries the other through. The Moving Creatures, a movie comprised of shots that often establish finitude, finds in this artifice the chance of making life flow (through a door or window) from a moment to the next, from one story to the next, from one shot to the next. Despite the headfirst dive mid-traffic from the top of a building, something survives. Edu (Rômulo Braga) returns like the swan, and gone are all easy answers: a full mind is a devil’s workshop. His curse is in letting himself be dragged by the mechanics of swimming, eating and resting at the bank of the lake. If he lives what the protagonist of the first story chose not to live – not only an adult life, but also the weight of guilt, which the movie wisely preserves over bread and butter, keeping the echoes of the central event of this second part, the event which everything else leads up to or derives from – his drama is not very different: failing at looking at a post and seeing only the post, until it’s past.

The paths, however, go in opposite directions. If the curse in the first part of The Moving Creatures starts with a half-open window, here it is precisely the lack of air due to a closed window that produces the forbidden image. If in the first drama we are taken by surprise by the arrival of the police, here – since, once surprised, there’s no room to be surprised again – the movie spends time announcing, in each of Edu’s gestures, what we all know, although unawarely so: a door in the recording studio is opened at the wrong time; the office window is opened in an attempt to reach outside for the air that lacks inside. The substantiation of the disease is persistent, its symptoms are clear, and in the end those will be Edu’s words when he tries to explain his mistake to his wife: I swear I felt like there was something wrong.

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The tricky uneven nature of the first part is replaced by absolute precision of gestures and pacing. After all, Edu’s curse in not fruit of not having enough to do, but of dedicating too much attention to the “wrong” things, letting himself get tangled up on what’s least important, without noticing the post, always the post, tied to an infant car seat in the back seat, in the heavy sleep rocked by the movements of the car. Edu only reacts, and there lies his misery. That’s why there are so few reaction shots throughout the film (and that only makes the rare ones that exist all the more expressive): the key choice here is in knowing how to choose what to dedicate attention to.

The Moving Creatures is not exactly a film of extraordinarily composed frames, but one of extraordinary shots – or, like Luiz Soares Junior wrote here at Cinética, a film of time. That is what justifies the long shots, that stand like pillars in the cutting scheme of the film, not only the one with the swan pecking something that got stuck in his feathers in the first part, but also and above all the one with the baby in the second part, so hopelessly focused in playing with two seeds, or two pieces of broccoli, one pair at a time. And then the strongest reaction shot of the whole film: the two mothers (and little did one of them know what was happening to her son at that exact moment…) watching the baby, talking, smiling and crumpling their faces in spasms of affection to that tiny creature that, so focused on the post, and only the post, barely acknowledges all those grimaces.

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Edu’s drama is to be a father, and not a mother. Maternity – unlike paternity – is an experience of a more concrete nature, a physical connection that allows interaction between shot and reverse shot. Eduardo, on the contrary – in another of the film’s greatest shots – stares out, in uncomfortable stillness, while the sound comes through the studio speakers, simulating a physicality that is no longer there. Like in the first shot of the film, a man stares into nothingness, despite believing there is something there. In that sense, the game suggested by The Moving Creatures is on the opposite end of the one seen in Caetano Gotardo’s 2010 short film, The Japanese Boy: there, absence restored presence through oral speech; here, presence consistently underlines absence. In his article here at Cinética, Filipe Furtado writes about the “chronicle of a reappearance” aspects of The Moving Creatures, in its politics of refilling empty spaces. But one doesn’t go back to the grave without hiding, under this impression of presence, the heavy weight of an absence. Edu looks at the sound coming from the speakers like we look at the images projected on a movie screen: everything is there, at the same time that nothing really is. If theater is the expression of a maternal relation – the concrete experience, the physical connection that allows interaction between the scene and the audience – Rômulo Braga is a cinematic actor (of visible editing): every image reaches us through mediations, disconnected, orphaned. For that reason, all that is left is the logos, the handwriting that means more than the simple administration of elements. In absence – in an orphaned presence – blooms the chance of a musical.

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But that’s until we arrive at the third story, and that tour de force, steadily heading towards the end, brakes for a second, changing directions. Because the third story is not so clearly about what no longer is, but precisely about what once again got the chance to be. Fábio/Antônio (Gabriel dos Reis) is the son thought to be missing for sixteen years who, a lifetime later, comes back from the dead, bringing with him a blue hoodie – just slightly darker than Pedro’s; the same, but different, transformed (and there is an entire study to be made about the expressive color palette of the film, starting with the costumes seen in each of the pictures accompanying this text) – restarting a story interrupted by the jump out the window, and that landed against a locked car on a stuffy day. What is left is someone one can buy a present to, a ridiculous gift box (or of photographs, left in the locked car) where one decided to cram all the sadness in the world.

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The small talk of the walk in the park is back in the center of the stage, but this time everybody knows they’re in masked ball. Again, the camera lingers on a face hidden under a thick layer of cheap chat… but if Fábio/Antônio is the post here, why are we so attached to the slow transformation in Ana’s (Fernanda Vianna) face, slowly looking inwards, seeing with her eyes closed? This time, the father says, crying comes from too much joy, but crying leads to the bathroom, to the moment of loneliness that triggers the song… and at this point we already know that The Moving Creatures is not a film of happy songs.

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From the bathroom, right before the first note, the beginning of the melody, she looks out through the half-open door and sees the face of her son, in that brief interval between the mask falling off and the face being revealed, with eyes as lost as Pedro’s or Eduardo’s, aimed at a TV screen tucked somewhere off the limits of the movie screen. Fábio/Antônio is there. He is back, for the first time. But until when? It doesn’t matter much that the flight “through the window”, in the end, defies gravity in a number of gymnastics the boy transports himself to, fleeing from a suffocating family meal. As a mother – of everything she lived with and without him, but because of him, connected to him – she knows that, as present as he may seem, every presence holds in its horizon the certainty of disappearance, and every open door or window shall at some point be shut.

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Originally published in May, 2013. Translation by Fábio Andrade.

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