The first half-hour of “Private Desert,” Brazil’s most recent Oscar entry, painstakingly sketches the troubled life of Daniel (Antonio Saboia), a cop who assaulted a rookie during a training session. We see Daniel running at night, and on the soundtrack we hear narration from him that turns out to be texts he is sending to a mystery woman named Sara, who lives far away in the north of Brazil. “I think I’m in love,” Daniel writes her. “Wet kisses.”
Falling in love with someone you have never met in person is foolish, of course, but Daniel is believably portrayed by Saboia as equal parts naïve, sweet, cruel and volatile; he teases his very ill father in a way that stops just short of being gloatingly mean. Writer-director Aly Muritiba patiently views Daniel in long takes as he sends nudes to Sara, and the style here is simple, no frills, purely observational.
Casting is very important for this movie, because we learn a lot of unflattering things about Daniel practically right away, yet we still need to find him sympathetic enough to care about him and to follow his life in minute detail. Saboia does not let his director down, rooting every scene in a recognizable reality with just a look from his soulful eyes, presenting both the good and bad sides of Daniel without judgment.
Sara ghosts Daniel, and so he gets into his car and drives across the country to see her, at which point a very beautiful and plaintive string score by Felipe Ayres comes on the soundtrack, and the very delayed credit sequence finally starts. This is all very effective because it feels like Daniel is leaving his drab and morally compromised life behind for a new start. Of course, if we think about it, Daniel is also basically stalking a pen pal who stopped responding to his messages, but Muritiba and his co-writer Henrique Dos Santos blithely ignore the darker implications of their narrative.
When Daniel reaches the northern part of Brazil, he asks anyone around if they know Sara, and he even prints out a photo of her and shows it to anyone who will listen to him, behavior that could be looked at as either romantic or unhinged. He finally finds a contact for her in Fernando (Thomas Aquino), a guy who cryptically says he might be able to introduce Daniel to Sara.
Fernando shows Daniel a knife wound on his torso and says, “My brother caught me with another man!” in a strangely cheerful voice, but then he reneges on this story and says he got the scar in a less dramatic fashion. Is Fernando lying or telling the truth? He relays what Sara is thinking about Daniel: “She thinks you’re sweet, but you also scare her.”
What follows could be considered a spoiler: Fernando tells Daniel to go to a nightclub called Vibe, where Sara will be waiting for him. Daniel does as he is told, and he makes a silent connection with a woman there, but then she runs out of the club. We see Sara running out to Fernando’s car, and they go back to his place, and this is when we learn her secret: she takes off her wig and now presents as a male named Robson (Pedro Fasanaro). “He’d never accept me, right?” Sara/Robson asks.
Female pronouns are used for Sara in the press notes of “Private Desert,” but Dos Santos refers to her as Robson/Sara, and on screen Robson/Sara is portrayed as non-binary or genderqueer. Toward the end of “Private Desert,” after Daniel has discovered what is going on, we hear his former pen pal say, “I’m Sara, Robson…many things.”
This is made even more confusing when Fernando and male-presenting Robson refer to each other humorously as “girl” in the old-fashioned gay-guy way. But sorting through the gender issues here becomes a moot point because, in either mode, Sara/Robson is such a disappointing dud of a character: passive, naïve, and with very little personality. Nothing about the interactions between Daniel and his former pen pal in the second half of the movie are even remotely believable, and so the rosy climax of “Private Desert” enters the dangerous realm of fantasy and wish-fulfillment, revealing that the makers of this film are as recklessly naïve and morally questionable as their protagonists.
“Private Desert” opens Sept. 9 via Kino Lorber.