[…] The isolated girl in the forest, raised by her broken-hearted mother, learning the futility and godlessness of life from her psychotic father (echoing Hilst’s own life), transitions violently from the imaginary to the symbolic.
[…] With dramaturgical grace, both the movement of the camera (Mauro Pinheiro Jr.) and the sound/Foley score (Bruno Armelin, Gabriel D’Angelo) step in to affect our senses and place any confusion over the plot at ease (an aspect of the film that becomes less and less important).
[…] Nunes clearly gives the feeling that we are immersed in the troubled thoughts of Hilst through an ornate tapestry of image and sound. “Unicórnio” is created exploring the more sensory aspects of experiencing film, while paying unique homage to the words of a national icon.
In Mediaeval lore, one myth of the unicorn is that it takes a young virgin to tame the horned beast; another is to grind down its horn into medicinal powder in the event of poisoning. Eduardo Nunes’ second feature film provides an impressionistic adaptation of two books by famed Portuguese author of the 20th Century, Hilda Hilst (1930-2004): O Unicórnio and Matamoros. Hilst’s work is well-known for its provocative themes; her novels splash the pages with scatological poesies, brutally wrenching apart her protagonist, who is often plagued by mental illness. She does this through an existentialist inquiry, not as intellectually clean as we might find in Beckett’s theatre of the absurd, but rather more grotesque and sadistic. Nunes presents this Hilstian regard for life as painful, vengeful, and futile – but not without a sense for beauty.
The camera slowly pans a frieze of skinny trees, their bark half-stripped and ragged. The light illuminates a richness of colour that bursts forth in every scene like a flower or fruit in delicious bloom. The main locations of the film are natural landscapes, interpolated with the grubby floor-to-wall white-tiled room where the young Marie’s father (Zécarlos Machado), a psychiatric patient, pontificates negatively about life. The colours are deliberately fantastical: greens are hyper-green, made visible in the natural light somewhere between aqua, turquoise and teal. It is an enchanting playground for Marie’s faltering mind, all filmed in mountainous Rio. Often the camera moves in and out of focus to bring into the frame amorphous strokes of colour like a Fauves painting. Violent dabs expose a primitive energy that only young Marie (Bárbara Luz) can touch the edges of.
The action of the film in the first half is task-based and slow. We follow Marie and her mother: drawing water from the well, cleaning, cooking, washing, and eating in their rustic, wooden house on a pretty hillside. Marie loves deeply a pomegranate tree, from which she picks the fruit, squeezing its blood-like liquid over her Bo-chic clothing. All lace, frills, and embroidery; it’s a rather strong effort in couture that adds to the film’s anti-realist blend. The pomegranate tree is also part of the myth – woven into the large tapestries of the Mediaeval era, the one-horned creature chained to the tree and stained by its juices. In a twist, Marie (as a unicorn) finds solace and the ultimate solution to her addled thoughts with the belief that the fruit from her tree is poisonous. She regularly self-harms over an obsessive misdirected Oedipal desire for her mother (Patricia Pillar), rather than her father, with whom she discourses on love, death and God. (She is heard whispering to herself: «why does she look so beautiful?»).
When the hermetically-sealed mother-daughter world appears compromised, Marie poisons her mother and her mother’s goat herdsman lover (Lee Taylor), displaying an innocent curiosity about pain and death that transcends any notion that morality is inherent to human nature. The isolated girl in the forest, raised by her broken-hearted mother, learning the futility and godlessness of life from her psychotic father (echoing Hilst’s own life), transitions violently from the imaginary to the symbolic. Her psycho-sexual self, inchoate in her desires and eagerly responsive to the words of her father, the “big Other”.
Admittedly, it was hard to know for the first half-hour how the characters related to each other; at least until Marie joins her mother in a scene that brings the story to a clear “present”. The timeline is ambiguous up to this point, suggesting many connections between the girl and her mother (are they the same person?), her father (is he dead and speaking to her in a dream?) and the young goatherd (is this the father when younger?). With dramaturgical grace, both the movement of the camera (Mauro Pinheiro Jr.) and the sound/Foley score (Bruno Armelin, Gabriel D’Angelo) step in to affect our senses and place any confusion over the plot at ease (an aspect of the film that becomes less and less important).
In one early scene, the lens opens in a glacially-slow movement, bringing into focus an open door. In the background Marie’s performance of domestic duties inconsequentially traverses from left to right of the frame. Without any idea of what the story is about, there is a tremendous feeling of doom that this unusual focus on the door brings. Who will come? Who will leave? Who has left? The father? Or perhaps God? The camera then traverses ever so carefully to trace out the absent path of someone or something that has been, or is yet to come. The audio elevates these experiences with a mix of ambient natural sounds, amplified to fill our heads with the impending tempest. Thunder rumbles, never quite cracking into relief. Flies buzz to irritating crescendos. The hooves and snort of the unicorn escalate as the story takes shape. Dizzy, and ultimately crushed by the noise in Marie’s head, we are made privy to the horror of her reality: the soundlessness of her motionless mother.
Nunes gives the clear feeling that we are immersed in the troubled thoughts of Hilst through an ornate tapestry of image and sound. Unicórnio is created to explore the more sensory aspects of experiencing film, whilst paying unique homage to the words of a national icon.
Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie
First published: March 22, 2018