Don’t worry, “The Fever” has nothing to do with the pandemic.
But it may make you break into a cold sweat. This debut fiction feature by Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin is so good, so impressively self-assured that you may find yourself feeling a little dizzy wondering how she did it.
But maybe it’s not fitting to hyperbolize. “The Fever” moves at a deliberately slow and grounded pace. It follows Justino, a security guard who works at a cargo port in Manaus, an industrial city in the Amazon forest. Justino is a member of an indigenous Amazonian people, and each night he returns to his home on the outskirts of town, where his daughter Vanessa, a nurse at a health clinic, also lives.
The style of the film — for anyone else also going down Criterion Collection rabbit holes during COVID — feels reminiscent of Ozu or Bresson. Da-Rin uses long shots, delayed cuts, and sparse dialogue spoken by un-trained actors — akin to what Paul Schrader called “transcendental style.” These techniques tell us something crucial about what the film is after.
Justino faces different conflicts, small and large, as he goes about his daily life: He struggles to stay awake at work. There’s the casual racism of a new co-worker and of a human resources officer. His daughter gets into med school in Brasilia and will likely move away soon, leaving him alone. He thinks his son is too white. When he sprains his hand, Justino blames his weak bones from a lifetime of eating soft meat from the supermarket instead of hunting. Meanwhile, at work each day, cranes lift giant cubes across the sky.
Eventually, Justino indeed develops a fever. Or so his daughter suggests.
“I don’t know if it’s a fever,” he responds. “It may be something else.”
The causal order of these problems isn’t always clear; their effects on our protagonist are muted. The storytelling skillfully allows for multiple interpretations. Justino’s fever seems to be a metaphor for something. But what?
I don’t want to give anything away; the fun of course is doing the work that the film asks you to do. But l will say that, for me, the heart of the matter is tightly wrapped up in its style: these long thoughtful tableaus express something about what Justino’s holding onto, or feels he’s losing.
No matter how you see it, the film is so beautifully crafted, so full of specificity that you have to remind yourself time and again that it’s a work of fiction. This tracks: Da-Rin is a trained documentarian. And in “The Fever” she combines documentarian-like precision and skill for observation with thoughtful storytelling and aesthetic restraint. It’s the work of a mature filmmaker.
Credit must also be given to the cast and crew. Regis Myrupu is quietly brilliant as Justino. I really hope to see him in more movies soon. And Rosa Peixoto (Vanessa) is outstanding. It’s remarkable how much of her inner life is revealed to us without ever being made explicit. Both performances makes it hard to watch anything else, which, in comparison, feels like overwrought melodrama.
The film’s sound, too, deserves a mention for the savvy storytelling work it does. (Here again I’m reminded of Bresson and the narrative role of his sounds outside the frame.) Rich forest soundscapes, suspicious rustling in the bushes, the high-pitched otherworldly buzzing of the Amazon at night— it all forces us to lean in, question, even watch again.
This is a film for people who find TikTok too aggressive, too needy in its supposedly brilliant ability to capture our attention. Instead, like a lover playing hard to get, “The Fever” sits back and lets you do the work. It’s a successful strategy.
“The Fever” starts streaming on the Austin Film Society’s website beginning April 16