When Maya Da-Rin’s Manaus-set fiction feature debut The Fever world-premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August, 2019, over 75,000 forest fires had destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres across the Amazon basin, home to dozens of indigenous communities, some in danger of extinction. Now, as the film is released in dozens of virtual cinemas across the country, those same communities have been hit hard by COVID-19 and President Jair Bolsonaro’s refusal to tackle this health crisis head-on (he recently told Brazilians to stop whining as the country reported another record number of deaths). Da-Rin’s film is not overtly political but its portrait of an indigenous man caught between two cultures is both timely and timeless. The Fever may have been years in the making but you can’t help draw a line between it and recent events.
Forty-five-year old Justino (Regis Myrupu), a member of the Desana people, works as a security guard in Manaus’ docks. Recently widowed, Justino lives in the outskirts of town with his daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), a nurse at a local clinic. His is a quiet, tedious existence. Nothing seems to faze him, not even the racist taunts of a new security guard. And yet, from the way he stands in his house’s doorway, his back to the camera, staring at the falling rain or in the delight he takes in telling his grandson a traditional Desana story, you can’t help but feel his rootlessness, his sense of not belonging. That rootlessness begins to gnaw at him after Vanessa shares the news that she has been granted a scholarship to study medicine in Brasilia. He begins to hear strange noises emanating from a nearby forest and believes that whatever is causing it is following him to his abode. Local media is going wild with news of strange animal attacks. He even dreams of being chased in those very same forests. And a new crack appears on one of his walls. He develops a fever that affects his performance at work and is reprimanded by HR.
Written by Da-Rin, Miguel Seabra Lopes and anthropologist Pedro Cesarino with the dialogue translated by the film’s indigenous actors into Tukano, the language spoken by the Desana, The Fever weaves these plot strands into a dreamlike pattern, eschewing traditional notions of suspense building and drama, opting for a more observational approach where the day-to-day grind is at odds with the spiritual world. That tension between the material and the spiritual, between an industrial culture and an indigenous one manifests itself, of all places, at the dinner table. It is here where Justino shares his story with his grandson, where Vanessa breaks the news of the scholarship and discusses with her father what life might be like for her in Brasilia and where, most importantly, Justino’s brother tries to convince him to return to his village as he laments that a new generation isn’t interested in the old ways while recriminating Justino for “speaking the language of the white man.”
Da-Rin’s direction and Barbara Alvarez’s camera capture the life-draining, soul-crushing routine of Justino’s job and life with devastating effect. Justino is framed dead center against the hundreds of containers that dot the docks’ ample space, even when he moves through and around the labyrinthine corridors created by them, overwhelming him. These containers are as abstract and lifeless as a glass skyscraper. Their perfect, rectangular, impersonal shapes a perfect symbol for modern life. In its fusion of metallic clanks, crickets chirping and birds singing, the sound design magnifies Justino’s feverish, internal conflict. And then there is Justino himself: at first glance, he seems to be personifying the stereotype of the stoic indigenous. But Justino is much more than that thanks to Myrupu’s understated acting debut. He may not say much but it is, in fact, in what’s left unsaid, on his furtive glances, in his physical language, that Myrupu slowly reveals his character’s anomie, his sense of feeling bereft in this world, his quiet anger.
Da-Rin subtly hints at the ways Western civilization and colonialism are still a threat to this community, and to people like Justino. As Justino walks home from work one night, he stops outside the open window of a nearby church to listen to the service inside; the language used in the sermon and the song may be indigenous but the faith and religion they practice is clearly not. There are also the constant references to how Western diets and foods embraced by the younger generation makes them ill and drives them further away from their roots. And yet, scenes like these exist not to score a political or social point but to state, simply, that that’s how life is lived by these communities, these are their concerns, this is how things are. And therein lies the film’s timelessness and timeliness. By simply observing, by simply letting these characters be, speak and even dream, Da-Rin records a way of life, and a way of thinking, of living, that is about to be lost.
The Fever is streaming as part of the Gene Siskel’s Film Center of the School of the Art Institute’s Film Center from your Sofa program. For a complete list of virtual cinemas streaming The Fever across the country, visit https://www.kimstim.com/film/the-fever/.