– Julia de Simone’s first feature inventively interrogates Portugal’s colonial history in Brazil through experimental fiction informed by a documentary background

Review: Formosa Beach

Lucília Raimundo in Formosa Beach

Through foggy, textured landscape shots of ragged urbanity, the city of Rio de Janeiro seems desolate, grey and a product of progress-driven modernity. On the ground, new buildings spring up around neighbourhoods that diasporic populations have made their home. Then, captured from a viewpoint in the sky, the Rio harbour is suddenly overtaken by a sublime and massive wave, which destroys everything in its path. Later, we learn that this is the port where slave ships docked, holding within it centuries of intergenerational violence. Finally, it’s reduced to nothing.

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This is the speculative opening to Formosa Beach [+see also:
interview: Julia De Simone
film profile
]
, Brazilian filmmaker Julia de Simone‘s feature debut, which has just premiered in the Tiger Competition of the 2024 IFFR. Along with The Harbor and Rapacity, both short documentaries, the work is one in her trilogy of films on the colonial histories of Rio de Janeiro. Although the story moves loosely through time and space, Formosa Beach follows Muanza (Lucília Raimundo), a woman trafficked in the 19th century from the West African kingdom of Kongo and brought to colonial Brazil as an enslaved woman. After escaping the house she is confined to, she finds herself in modern-day Rio, wandering the streets and carefully making sense of this new Brazil.

Playing heavily with linearity and continuity, de Simone crafts a narrative that is experimental at times while not losing sight of the work’s core themes. Formosa Beach shines as a type of resistance cinema, bending form and convention to explore histories of erasure as well as possibilities for an emancipatory future. Although the film plays out like a work of fiction, how de Simone interrogates the subject is a nod to her background in documentary filmmaking. Additionally, she incorporates documentary-style footage to examine slavery’s extant marks in modern-day Rio and fleetingly touches on religion’s role in Portugal’s dark history.

Early on in the film, Muanza meets a young girl in contemporary tie-dye clothing, bringing the audience to attention and already conveying the film’s narrative language. Shifts in the decor of the slave master’s bedroom, which changes between scenes from decaying to lavishly outfitted, creatively point to the tenuousness of the colonial complex. Narrating small portions of the film, the protagonist posits a future where neither land nor people are conquerable. She proposes meeting Kieza, a fellow enslaved woman she met on the journey from Africa, at Praia Formosa (lit. “Beautiful Beach”), which we later learn is a transit stop in today’s Rio.

Muanza is given the Portuguese name of Domingas by “her ladyship”, who waits day after day for her husband to return to Brazil. Every utterance of the moniker is a slap to the young woman’s face, with violence inflicted through names and histories brutally removed. Long, static or slow-moving shots of the colonial home reveal it as a place of dwelling and occupation where Muanza is trapped. The filmmaker also plays with the motifs of rain and water as liberating, from the imagination of the flooded harbour to moments of freedom in the protagonist’s life that are punctuated by downpours of rain.

While cryptic at times, the outcome of de Simone’s filmmaking approach imaginatively breaks the confines of time and space, aspects that colonial and imperial powers infamously sought to control. Boldly, she proclaims that the past and the present are intertwined, and places hold meaning and histories that we must never forget.

Formosa Beach is a co-production between Anavilhana Filmes (Brazil), Mirada Filmes (Brazil) and Uma Pedra no Sapato (Portugal), which is also handling the international sales.

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