IFFR 2021: ‘King Car’ (2021), ‘Madalena’ (2021), and the Power of Brazilian Cinema

Brazil is a nation that always has been bubbling with cinematic energy; from Limite (1931) to Cinema Novo to Bacurau, its cinema culture has always been revolutionary. And right now, cinema is more important than ever with fascist leader Jair Bolsonaro sending the country into turmoil in seemingly every which way he can: allowing trans people to be murdered in the street, to causing irreparable damage to the amazon rainforest. Brazil needs urgent and vocal cinema, and after an impressive 2019 in Cannes, with Bacurau earning such deserving praise, and The Invisible Life of Euradice Gusmao picking up the Un Certain Regard, this year’s IFFR proves that it has one.

There are two outstanding Brazilian features at this year’s Rotterdam festival that speak to modern Brazil. The first, King Car seems simple in concept: it is about a boy who realises at a young age that he can converse with cars. The city looks to bring in a law banning any car over 15 years of age, seemingly for environmental reasons, but the film quite rightly frames it as a class issue, disenfranchising many – including our protagonist, Uno’s  (Luciano Pedro Júnior) taxi driver father. This leads him to refurbish old cars, developing technology that allows their thoughts to be heard. What he does not bank on is that the cars would be more inclined to evil than he ever could have imagined. The film watches as Uno’s kibbutz-like group become seduced by the idea of “King Car”, no small hint at the problematic nature of hierarchy in co-operative groups (as well as more generally). Though at times cheesy, King Car’s inventive concept keeps you engaged, and much like Bacurau, it is a brilliant example of how radical politics can be seemingly integrated into an entertaining genre film.

Image shows a young man trying to hide behind a car.
Image from King Car courtesy of IFFR

In contrast, Madalena is a haunting film centred around the murder of the eponymous character, a trans woman, whose body has been left in a field. Transphobia is a global scourge, make no mistake. In the UK alone, the likelihood of being murdered as a trans person is far higher than the rate for cis people, and the level of media discrimination is disgusting. Under Bolsonaro though, Brazil has descended into becoming the country in which the highest number of transgender people are murdered every year.

Madalena’s (Chloe Milan) presence fills the atmosphere of the film. We follow three sets of characters, all vaguely connected to her. A club hostess who knocks on her door for money, a young man inspecting the soy fields where her body lies for his father, and a group of trans women splitting her things between themselves, reminiscing about her. Madalena shows the emptiness death causes, something all too often felt in Brazil’s trans community. It is a powerful and affecting film, one that holds up the immense weight of such atrocities, not allowing them to simply be forgotten or written off. Not only does it do this, but it shows the impact of individual death. Madalena is not a statistic, one amongst the number of trans women murdered in Brazil, no, she is a person, and the emptiness she leaves is smothering.

Cannes 2019 had two stand out features from Brazil that looked to alert the world of its current political predicament. Two years on and Bolsanro has inflicted damage to Brazil both environmentally and in terms of his despicable handling of the coronavirus pandemic. King Car and Madalena show that despite ever worsening conditions, Brazilian cinema is resilient, still with a strong voice decrying its political leader’s madness. They are more than simply wonderful films, they are vital. Not just in terms of understanding Brazil’s current situation, but also to understand what it looks like to see creatives use their platform for good. After 4 years of Trump, a number of American creatives celebrated his election defeat, yet very few of them created anything as vicious or important as these two films. Brazilian cinema, as it has been for a long time, is a shining example to the world of the power of cinema. It is time we listen.

Header image courtesy of IFFR