The Fever diagnoses a sickness in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Maya Da-Rin’s Locarno award-winner follows an Indigenous Desano man through the industrial and natural environments of Manaus, where an unexplained illness and a mysterious beast act as potent political metaphors.

5 August 2021

By Jason Anderson

Regis Myrupu as Justino in The Fever
Sight and Sound

The Fever is in UK cinemas from 6 August.

The first narrative film by the Brazilian documentarian Maya Da-Rin, The Fever immerses its viewers in a remarkable array of environments and landscapes, both natural and industrial. In the former category are the various locations within the Amazonian forest that surrounds the main setting of Manaus, dense spaces that Da-Rin typically portrays with a night-time soundtrack of thrumming cicadas. The film’s primary man-made environment is a cargo port full of shipping containers that create a formidable visual field of steel geometric shapes, shot in a way that emphasises its vastness and the puniness of the few human inhabitants.

Yet the most vivid topography viewers are invited to scrutinise is the face of Regis Myrupu, who won a richly deserved acting prize for his lead performance in DaRin’s often astonishing and ultimately deeply moving feature at the Locarno festival in 2019. A non-professional actor with little prior experience, Myrupu met the director during her year-long process of interviewing members of the Indigenous communities living on the peripheries of Manaus and São Gabriel da Cachoeira. He shares the Indigenous Desano heritage and much of the history of his character Justino, a gentle-mannered widower and watchman who continually crosses the boundary between the film’s two kinds of space as he goes from workplace to home, but seems increasingly unmoored in both.

Da-Rin opens her film with a shot of Myrupu in his work gear of orange vest and hard hat, looking toward the camera with a placid expression. The director returns to the image several more times over the course of the story, the effects of Justino’s unexplained fever becoming more and more pronounced, his gaze increasingly glassy. It’s as if what we’re witnessing on Justino’s face is the fading of the light we see when he’s with his family. That glow is at its strongest during an early visit from his son’s family in which Justino hoists his grandson in his lap and tells him the tale of a hunter who is led astray by monkeys and can’t find his way home.

The story Justino shares with his grandson is one of Da-Rin’s many metaphorical ways of conveying a sense of personal loss and cultural estrangement that she attributes not just to her protagonist but the wider experience of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples coping with the effects of urban migration and industrialisation, phenomena that have accelerated in the increasingly vulnerable Amazonas region under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.

Rosa Peixoto as Vanessa and Regis Myrupu as Justino in The Fever

The Fever’s political themes and simmering undercurrent of anger would be plenty palpable even without the scenes in which the director emphasises her aims more overtly, as she does in Justino’s discomfiting interactions with a casually racist new co-worker and his conversations with the older brother and sister-in-law who come to visit and chastise him for spending too long away from home. (“You really have turned white,” his brother tells him.)

Da-Rin’s subtler tactics prove to be the most rewarding, especially when applied to the film’s two central mysteries. The first is Justino’s ailment, a condition that yields a rich vein of dry humour as the watchman expresses his scepticism of the various medical professionals’ efforts to diagnose and cure him. Then there’s the possibly supernatural beast stalking the outskirts of Manaus, a story element that provides the film with its most ominous moments as well as its suitably ambiguous climax. The presence of the creature and its unexplained relationship to Justino provide further points of connection with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004), a work that blurs borders between dream and reality with similarly entrancing results.

Even more magical is the warm and loving rapport that Myrupu and co-star Rosa Peixoto create between Justino and his daughter Vanessa. Clearly Justino’s true anchor since the loss of his wife, Vanessa regards her father with a mixture of concern and guilt as she faces a different process of change and estrangement. Peixoto’s own high degree of luminosity is evident in the scenes of Vanessa at the medical clinics where she works and in the market when she goes to buy a suitcase for her imminent departure.

Though her worries are clear, she has a sense of ease in this city which her father has lost and struggles to regain. In his own quiet way, Justino can seem utterly overwhelmed by this feeling of displacement. But rather than ladle on the punishment, Da-Rin allows her character moments of joy and relief even amid the turmoil. Justino’s determination to weather his strange sufferings make him a figure of strength and resilience, even if Da-Rin’s poignant and pointed film doesn’t let viewers forget about the pain, injustice and devastation happening around him.

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