Tuesday 27 July 2021


By Dimitri Keramitas

Brazilian director Carlos Segundo has made an arresting, engaging movie with Fendas, but it probably will not be everyone’s cup of coffee.

On one level, the film is a meditation on reality versus perception, and, on another, it’s a speculation about how scientific research into natural phenomena may enable us to comprehend emotional states.

This makes Fendas sound very cerebral, and while the science may pull in some viewers, it may leave others feeling adrift. Yet Fendas - a French-Brazilian coproduction that was making the festival rounds before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns - also has a gritty and sensual texture true to its South American characters and environment. The combination is what makes the film original, if not entirely successful. 

Roberta Rangel plays Catarina, a researcher and professor of “the physics of poiesis”. Poiesis has several meanings, especially in philosophy, but here it seems to refer to the potential properties of phenomena we create. 

According to certain theories, if such phenomena become fixed by the act of measuring them, or are distorted by observing them, perhaps one’s actions can somehow be retrieved by searching and measuring as well. 

So, Catarina’s research explores the possibility that sounds, particularly those related to living beings, may be conjured out of visual images - out of captured light, and she takes photographs in pursuit of this prospect.

We can’t really see Catarina in teaching mode, however, because the professors are on strike, leaving the school where she works looking like a ghost town, and this is one of two destabilizing events for her. The other is the disappearance of her cat. She continues to come to the classroom, to chat with the sole student who shows up. But we never hear of the cat again in the movie. Does it simply symbolize loss?

The director does cite many scientists and institutions in the movie credits, but he doesn’t really give a clear idea of the link between vision and sound and how time plays into all this.

From a layperson’s perspective, though, there’s enough to spark interest. The earliest attempt to record sound, for instance, was with the phonautograph of Frenchman Edouard Léon-Scott de Martinville, via graphic notation. For more than a century there was no way to mechanically retrieve the sounds in question, but now, using digital methods, researchers have unlocked the old sounds and brought them back to life - using photographs of the original notation that consequently enabled them to reproduce the sounds.

This idea of the role of pictures in sound is pushed further when the director shows us large, disconcerting image-blobs - Catarina’s blow-ups of the photographs she’s taken. This is also reminiscent of Blow-Up (about a photographer who discovers that a detail in a photo actually depicts a murder when it’s magnified), and Brian DePalma’s unofficial remake Blowout (a murder mystery as well, but focused on sound recording).

Yet Segundo equally punctuates his film with black-outs, hinting at the futility of obtaining any definitive meaning from the images.

Just as disconcerting are the dissonant noises of the soundtrack, whether associated with Catarina’s research or with her life (and by extension, her unstable mental state). The director choreographs these sounds and images impressively: they resonate on our nerves like hammers striking piano chords, but their full meaning remains blurred.

At first, the main question of the film seems to concern speculative physics. But then the science merges into a kind of spiritualism, the idea that sounds and images may persist beyond time, even after the death of the persons captured in recordings. We’re reminded of the spiritualists of the 19th and early 20th century who claimed to depict ghostly auras (in the most literal sense) in photographs, most of which were debunked. This becomes linked to the tragic fate of that lone student, Henrique, and also to Catarina’s past relationship with a Frenchman.

Anything is possible, especially in the quantum universe, we think at first. Yet quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, and theory apply only tenuously to our macro, organic reality. So, we begin to wonder about Catarina’s emotional state. She’s beautifully played by Rangel, vividly present physically, and also in her relationships and conversations. This physical quality is emphasized by the director’s filming in a grainy 16mm-ish texture. In addition, there are shots of stark scenery and rough Brazilian terrain as well as cliff-top views of stretches of white-sand beaches.

We might think that the movie will turn out to be another sentimental story about sublimated loss, but, if anything, it’s about loneliness. If Catarina continues to come to the classroom, it’s obviously to see Henrique. Yet nothing serious comes of the relationship. Her only friendship seems to be with a colleague who will soon relocate to France.

Catarina’s contact with Réné, her former partner, also leaves one wondering, and the feeling of isolation is reinforced when she’s seen in desolate landscapes (such as the isolated spit of land where a lighthouse sits), crying out “Is anyone there?” Then, rather pathetically, she asks that if someone really is there that they email her. Her one contented moment is a scene of her masturbating, and one wonders who she might be thinking about then. She’s smiling but her eyes are closed.

Ironically, the “slits” or “cracks” of the title (fendas in Portuguese) refer to the eyes, openings to the visualized world outside, to the light-revealed exterior. The visual is also closely linked to the mental processes that perceive spatially - and also abstractly. But it’s the auditory that’s more related to the body, to the rhythms of music, dance, and intimate movement.

Much as we humans long for unity, and many physicists have been searching for years for a Grand Unifying Theory of the Whole Enchilada, the idea that sound and image are interchangeable seems a profound mistake. Catarina apparently recognizes this at the end, a revelation for both her and for viewers. (Perhaps she can now work on getting another cat.) In the meantime, Segundo is to be commended for serving up a memorable vision of the frayed interfaces between mind and heart, time and space, sight and sound.

Photos provided by Fendas distributors. The film arrives in French cinemas Aug. 4.

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.