Aly Muritiba on Risking Danger for Romantic Refuge in “Deserto Particular”

Daniel (Antonio Saboia) is in a desperate place at the start of “Deserto Particular (Private Desert),” but director Aly Muritiba doesn’t let on immediately how hopeless it is. Taking care of his ailing father, he and his sister are prone to arguments over responsibility when there’s little appreciation for the sacrifice that either has had to make and to make matters worse, Daniel has been reduced to working security odd jobs after being suspended from the local police force, subject to an investigation that has attracted the attention of local TV stations regarding an incident with a trainee that was regrettable no matter what conclusion is come to. His judgment may not be the best when he can be seen passing the time by taking nudes of himself and texting them to Sara, someone he’s met online yet never in person, yet in the promise that there is someone out there that could love him, warts and all, he is able to take refuge from the rest of his life that becomes more and more disappointing by the day.

As it turns out in “Deserto Particular,” the romance that sets Daniel free threatens to turn into a prison of its own when he finally decides to seek out Sara (Pedro Fasanaro), heading to the north of Brazil where he can only afford the smallest of rooms, but somehow it’s even more claustrophobic inside his mind as he chases someone that may not exist, at least in the way he thought, and his single-minded obsession could destroy him in ways the world at large can’t even approach. Still, Muritiba and co-writer Henrique Dos Santos have far more up their sleeve than seeing Daniel along on his possibly quixotic mission in the drama as one gets to know the person on the other end of the phone, shifting perspectives between the characters, but by extension broadening the view of the audience as to why Sara feels the need to hide. With a deep sense of empathy for both ends of the relationship, two lonely souls who can be surprised to make a connection when their tendency is to push all others away, the film is able to remove the preconceptions that Daniel and Sara feel have kept them from being accepted and forge as strong a bond as they make with one another through a savvy structure and intuitive and sensitive camerawork.

“Deserto Particular” became an immediate favorite out of the Venice Film Festival where it snagged the People’s Choice Award in the Gionarte Degli Autori sidebar and was subsequently selected as Brazil’s entry to the Oscars to compete for Best International Feature. Recently, Muritiba spoke about how he tied the romance to the geography of his home country and was able to draw on his actors’ lived experience to infuse such emotional authenticity into the film, as well as how he took his own time working as a prison guard to inform how to bring such a tender drama to the screen.

How did this come about?

It’s been a while now that I’ve wanted to tell a story about love and to make a movie that would leave the audience feeling happy, smiling, wanting to dance and celebrate. When I met the co-writer of this movie Henrique [Dos Santos], we decided to tell a love story and we just had to decide what type of love story we wanted to tell, so we came to an agreement that we wanted to tell a love story that was not conventional, featuring people that were completely different [than who you would typically see as the leads] and at the same time, I also wanted to talk about tolerance and toxic masculinity and explore how men deal with their feelings and how love could have an impact on that.

Were the locations in mind from the start? I know Northern and Southern Brazil are a bit different and seem to signal an emotional journey as much as geographical distance.

I live in the South of Brazil, but I come from the Northeast, which is the same place where the story is [set], so these are the two places that are connected to my heart, and these were places that not only meant a lot to me, but are also very representative of Brazil because they’re very different — their climate is very different, the history of colonization is very different and people behave differently and the movie is about in a way how in Brazil, which is a huge country with enormous diversity, it is still possible to find conciliation and connection and to bridge this difference, so it was important for me to use these two locations as a metaphor for that.

You’ve said before that your experience as a prison guard informed this. Did that have anything to do with knowing someone in one way, but not necessarily another?

I worked as a prison guard for seven years of my life and that’s an experience that has taught me a lot. Perhaps the biggest thing I learned from this was the ability to listen because usually there are twenty unarmed guards for every 1000 prisoners and we have to develop this ability to listen in a diplomatic way to literally save our own lives. This need to listen to the other is something that has influenced me as an artist, especially listening to people who were in the prison, to people whose voices have never been heard or who don’t get a chance to speak very often. This especially comes into play when you look at my characters. I have a deep respect for the characters I write. I try to listen to them and to understand them and I think that’s why they become so complex, so this experience has made me a more attentive writer and director and has helped me understand and respect my characters regardless of how different they are from me.

The camerawork is particularly attuned to the characters you have as well. What was it like to shape this aesthetically around their perspective?

I wanted to make a movie about desire, especially the part of the movie that’s shot in the Northeast, so the [cinematographer] and I talked all the time and I used to tell him that I wanted to make a tactile movie, a movie that one could feel in their skin, a movie that would physically touch people. The way that a camera worked for most of this was like a dance between itself itelf and the characters, and the camera from a formal perspective gets closer and closer to characters as they reveal themselves and open themselves up more, to the point where we can feel their skin and we can see their sweat and the details of their faces. I wanted to be able to make a movie that would explore their bodies in that way.

“Total Eclipse of the Heart” plays a huge role in the film and I understand you had to dip into your own pocket to pay for the licensing – why was that song so important to you?

My first love stories as a teenager were to the rhythm of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and songs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, so it was very important to me in the scene where Daniel and Sara meet, it’s connected to a song that evokes falling in love and passion, kind of in an adolescent way like I had experienced. In a way, it is a meeting of two teenagers. Daniel was behaving like a teen during that meeting — he looks head over heels in love, and I wanted to be able to see myself in that moment. It was a very intimate moment. It was very important that we would use a song that would bring all of these feelings of passion and falling in love, so we ended up having to buy the song out of my own pocket.

I’m glad you did. When you brought the actors onto this, were there any ways this came alive you might not have expected?

The process with the actors was very creative. Antonio Saboia, the actor who plays Daniel is a heterosexual man, very much of an alpha male and he found it very hard to understand how his character would fall in love with this woman without realizing that she was a lot more, so he fought against it, which was very important because it’s the same thing that his character does. I was able to use that when shaping his performance. On the other hand, Pedro Fasanaro, the actor who plays Sara is a queer actor and they were able to bring this lightness and sweetness and dignity to Sara that wasn’t originally scripted. And in the scene when Daniel is aggressive towards Sara, originally in the script her reaction was a lot more of oppression and of hiding and being a lot more fragile in that sense, but Pedro told me that “We as a community are tired of feeling oppressed and taking [such abuse] in and not doing anything, and in this movie, I am representing an entire community and I’m just not going to obey what the script says.” That experience was incredible for me because we were able to prep the scene and it was a great change that we made that I was very happy with.

What was the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Fest like?

Venice was the first in-person screening of the movie and I had only seen the movie in the mixing room, so it was the first time I saw it in a movie theater and I had been touched by the movie when we made it, but I could not have fathomed just how much it would touch people. I go to film festivals all the time — I organize one in Brazil — and I experienced something during the first screening we had in Venice that I have never experienced at other film festivals. At the end of the movie when the credits rolled, people were standing up and singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at the top of their lungs and they were crying and clapping. It was a cathartic moment for everyone. And I think it’s because after we just went through [with COVID] — and still are going through — where we lost people we loved, we couldn’t go out, we couldn’t travel, we couldn’t dance, and we couldn’t kiss, and this was the first time a lot of the audience was in the cinema after all that, I think seeing a movie where the characters did literally everything that we couldn’t do – dancing and smiling and falling in love, the movie ended up being a freeing experience for everyone. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a movie theater.