Tuesday, January 30, 2018

In short: When I Was Alive (2014)

Original title: Quando Eu Era Vivo

A middle-aged man we will only ever be introduced to as Junior (Marat Descartes in a performance in turns sad, creepy, and infuriating) has hit rock bottom. His wife has thrown him out, he has lost his job, and his sanity is hanging by a thread. Things are so bad, Junior has to move back in with Senior (Antônio Fagundes), a father who neither loves nor understands him and his unloved and misunderstood right back. Things are uncomfortable enough between the two the situation wouldn’t exactly need Junior’s deeply awkward and somewhat creepy attempts at flirting with his father’s tenant, music student Bruna (Sandy).

But that’s really just the beginning. In the old home, Junior’s already precarious mental state devolves rather quickly. His fixation on Bruna becomes increasingly uncomfortable (at least for the viewer, her reaction will be rather more ambivalent than you at first expect). He’s trying to change his father’s interior decorations back to the state they were in when his mother was still alive and increasingly devolves into a childlike mental state, complete with moving into a womb-like space in the house. He also discovers a mysterious song among his mother’s old things, a song that may have an occult meaning.

Brazilian Marco Dutra’s When I Was Alive belongs right into the zone of contemporary films of quiet, slow, intelligent and ambiguous horror that have one foot in the arthouse and the other, well, not in the grindhouse but certainly in genre filmmaking. When you make a film about a man who regresses into his past so much it becomes a peculiar kind of possession by the past, the borders between arthouse and genre blur quite naturally, as the question of the actual reality of the film’s occult elements seem rather beside the point mattering little for much of the film’s running time.

Don’t worry, midcore horror fans, the film does actually take an unambiguous turn into the – metaphorically fitting – occult, with a final couple of scenes nobody with two brain cells to rub against one another would explain with human psychology, however aberrant it may be. They are, of course, also rather fitting expressions of the metaphorical layer of the film, its scratching at the question of family, of closeness as possession and of the horrible lure of the dead past to those among us who have troubles surviving in the present.

All this – as careful, observant and atmospherically directed as it is by Dutra – will not be the sort of thing that’ll engage everyone. If you’re looking for much outward action or blood, or even just a typical thriller structure, When I Was Alive will probably not make you happy; it’s just not that kind of film. I do think it is very good at being the kind of film it wants to be, a metaphorically loaded, psychological piece of occult horror.

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