Mutum is a coming of age, low-budget feature about a subsistence farming family living in the sertão, the hardscrabble outback of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The family is so dirt poor and isolated that nearly every meal is rice and a little meat, the roof leaks buckets in a rainstorm, and a person can die from lack of treatment for a minor scrape that becomes infected.
The protagonist, Thiago (Thiago da Silva Mariz), nine years old, is guileless, curly-haired, doe-eyed, a moralist, a storyteller, a profound questioner, and a favourite of his long-suffering mother (Izadora Fernandes). His innocence is broken by death, violence, and sexual betrayal, mostly played low-key or off-screen, except for a small amount of overt physical violence.
The household’s father, Bero (João Miguel), can joke with his kids, but has a hair-trigger temper, is subject to rages, and abuses his family—especially Thiago because his son is broodingly sensitive. His personable uncle (Rômulo Braga) treats Thiago well, but exploits the relationship to manipulate the boy. His older brother, Felipe (Felipe Leal Barroso), with whom he is close, suffers a disturbing fate.
Sandra Kogut, Mutum's director, takes chances that pay off. The temporal and thematic connections between scenes are not always immediately obvious. This method requires a viewer to actively engage with the scenes to connect their meanings—a good thing. Kogut’s actors are mostly non-professionals. All of them—kids and adults alike—do amazingly well in range and expression. One feels their authentic presence, undoubtedly because they are native to the locality. This casting creates the feel of eavesdropping on real lives, as well as foregrounding by comparison the artifice of so much Hollywood acting.
Contrary to the hyperkinetic editing fashionable in many studio films, Kogut establishes an unhurried rhythm using long takes that employ close-ups and extreme close-ups, often of people’s faces, which contrast sharply with telephoto landscape shots. This method and its results mirror the slow pace of the countryside and also allow the characters to bond emotionally in a convincing way, which big feature films often fail to do because those movies almost always restlessly move on to the next edit.
Example: Thiago and his mother must make a decision that will alter their lives forever. He comes to her, climbs in her lap, rests his head on her shoulder. Dialogue is minimal. Everything they feel lives in their faces and their hug. One keeps expecting an edit, but the camera is not impatient; it holds for about a minute—an eternity for most shots in movies nowadays—so they and we can feel the love between them. It’s a beautiful, simple, complex minute.
Finally, in this incomplete list of Kogut’s achievements with this film, Mutum eschews a music track. This tactic lets an audience experience on its own the emotions arising from those long, intimate takes rather than being coerced into those emotions by hammer-and-anvil leitmotifs. Sounds from the environment—the barking of dogs, a cow lowing, birds calling, insects chirruping—contribute to a scene’s tone, while simultaneously helping to create the sense of place.
I do have a major beef with Mutum. In the last few minutes of the film, with nary a scintilla of backstory, seeding, or foreshadowing to set this up, there occurs an extremely important revelation about Thiago. This sudden revelation is all the more jarring because it seems incompatible with what we have seen of him; thus the suspension of disbelief necessary to drama—indeed upon which emotional involvement in drama absolutely depends—is shattered. This flaw is not a dealbreaker, as there are so many pleasures and treasures in Mutum, but it sure is a clunky misstep in an otherwise excellent picture.