Berlinale 2024 Review: A Matriarch Builds a Formidable Sand Castle in “Betânia”

“The shortest way isn’t always the best way,” Tonhão (Caçula Rodrigues) tells a pair of French tourists he’s been hired by to take around the sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses national park in “Betânia.” They are less likely to quarrel with him than with one another, each clearly wanting different things out of their vacation in Brazil and he hopes that they’ll be satiated with the otherworldly sights around them and eventually a dip in the lagoons where water collects in the sand, but patience is required in the area far from civilization where the money they’ll pay him for their services might have some value, but the main reward is the experience. It’s also why Tonhão’s mother-in-law Betânia (Diana Mattos) hasn’t left Lençóis Maranhenses in all her years, a pillar in the community that’s formed there as a midwife who surely has helped delivered every child that’s been born in the area in the last three decades at least, but also not needing anything more than what the land can provide, happier to be self-reliant than to trouble herself with a more complicated way of life.

Her pleasure can be thoroughly understood in “Betânia” when writer/director Marcelo Botta delivers something similarly simple and deeply satisfying, somewhat engaging with a dramatic structure when it begins with the funeral for Betânia’s husband, but hardly beholden to it. The death of Raimundo isn’t made to feel like a tragedy when a celebration of his life sweeps audiences into the film, with a march across the sand accompanied by the joyous music that lasts from dawn till dusk, and while the matriarch is clearly stung by the sudden absence of her longtime partner, she isn’t threatened by the prospect of a future without him. Still, the couple’s daughters Irineusa (Michelle Cabral) and Julecia (Rosa Ewerton Jara) see things differently than she does, looking around at the house where the fridge is turned off at night to preserve the limited electricity and clothes are washed in the run-off from the Amazon river, urging her to move back to the village where they’ve moved – and even has her namesake, but to do so, Betânia wouldn’t be only giving up on the life she’s built over 60 years but all her principles about how to live.

Botta and editor Marico Hashimoto cut the film in such a way that it seems as if you’re occasionally privy to Betânia’s thoughts at unexpected times, at first coming across like crude flashbacks from what you’ve seen before but then shaking the senses when some scenes appear to be slipped in from the future, and while there’s an initially jarring quality to some of the structure as a result, the adjustment to its rhythms feels no different than what the denizens of the area have become accustomed to in accommodating nature. The broader design of the film that moves between scenes of the family and the landscape they inhabit come to captivate as the spirit of the place takes over and local songs reverberate throughout the film, with even a few remixes of Sia and Lana Del Rey thrown in, that seeps into the blood. As pressure mounts for Betânia to leave — if not for herself, for the benefit of Antonio, Tonhão’s son who she often takes care of during the day when he’s not in school — a tour of possible places to resettle becomes a travelogue of places that live outside maps but Botta is intent on putting there, recognizing the communities that thrive in spite of the resources available to them and while the film is more inclined to chase their vitality than to adhere to some more traditional structure, much like the characters themselves, “Betânia” finds the rewards in that experience.

“Betânia” will screen again at Berlinale on February 20th at 9:15 pm at Cubix 5, February 22nd at 10 am at Cubix 5, February 24th at 4 pm at Cubix 5 and February 25th at 10 pm at Zoo Palast 2.

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