Private Desert

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Private Desert
"A potent rejoinder to the hypermasculine, explicitly transphobic values of the Bolsonaro regime."

Today internet romances are so commonplace that the panicky myths which circulated about them in the early days have largely disappeared. It’s still acknowledged that there is a need for caution, for in-person first dates to happen in public places, etc., but the assumption that people will be lying about who they are has faded, replaced by an understanding that sometimes the online environment lets us express more of ourselves and explore ways of being which are not possible within the constraints of day to day life.

Daniel (Antonio Saboia) has got into a whole lot of trouble as a consequence of the persona he has invented in day to day life. A tough, aggressive masculinity which may have made him popular with his fellow officers when he was a cop has cost him dear: demonised (perhaps deservedly so) in the media following a violent incident, he stands to lose his job and perhaps also his liberty. When he know longer feels able to survive in that world, he decides to head north. he barely knows his destination. Only the name of the city. Once there, he asks around, he puts up posters, he uses all of his investigative skills to one end: finding Sara, the woman he has connected with online, the only source of joy that remains to him.

As he expected, it doesn’t take long until people who know Sara see the posters, but why would they help a famously violent cop to find one of their friends? Why should she trust him? They live in two different worlds. Complicating things further is Sara’s secret. Their communications have provoked the same intense feelings in her as they have in him, but she would rather treasure those feelings as they are than risk meeting and losing everything. She hasn’t told him that she’s trans.

Cinema is full of myths about gay men presenting themselves as women in order to seduce straight men (as if there were no better options), and the different between sex and gender has historically been poorly understood. In real life, trans women encourage one another to come out to possible romantic interests early on in order to reduce the risk of having to deal with a violent reaction (not to mention heartbreak). In this film, these things are understood. When Sara eventually agrees to meet Daniel it’s a response to the pressure of his campaign to find her. The film gets the revelation out of the way fairly brusquely. It’s what happens afterwards, and the way it contrasts with what we have seen of Daniel’s previous life, that makes the film interesting.

To clarify, whilst Sara (ably played by Pedro Fasanaro) presents as a trans woman, closeted at home but referred to with female pronouns by her friends, the way she describes herself is a little more ambiguous. In her world, gender isn’t easily categorised; it doesn’t need to restricted, and that’s important. Though the tension in the second half of the film hinges on the continuing romantic and erotic feelings between Sara and Daniel – despite the latter’s attempts to disavow them – the real meat of it lies in Daniel’s attempts to deal with his sudden discovery that other ways of life are possible. Desire is only part of it as he realises that, whilst he thought of himself as tough, Sara and her friends are living in ways that he would find terrifying, and doing so with vigour. The world opens up to him in dizzying ways – yet as it does so, a different kind of tension emerges. Confused as he is, will he be able to adjust to it, or is he doomed by the weight of his past?

The film is slow to build and may not immediately grab you, as it needs to establish a grim picture of reality with which to contrast the later scenes. The stylistic switch as we move between locations and perspectives is impressive and may initially disorientate, but this brings us closer to Daniel’s experience. The chances are that relatively few viewers will initially be comfortable extending sympathy to both main characters, but by bringing them together, director Aly Muritiba helps us to see them in different ways and emphasises their common humanity.

Private Desert is Brazil’s official submission for the 2022 Oscars, and it’s a potent rejoinder to the hypermasculine, explicitly transphobic values of the Bolsonaro regime. As the Amazon burns and Covid ravages the land, there has never been a more important time for Brazilian film to celebrate alternative ways of being and the leap of imagination which makes it possible to be all of oneself online or off.

Reviewed on: 18 Dec 2021
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Daniel has been suspended from active police work and is under internal investigation for violence. When Sara, his internet love affair, stops answering his texts he decides to drive north in search of her.

Director: Aly Muritiba

Writer: Henrique Dos Santos, Aly Muritiba

Starring: Antonio Saboia, Pedro Fasanaro, Luthero Almeida, Thomas Aquino, Laila Garin, Sandro Guerra, Otavio Linhares, Zezita Matos, Cynthia Senek, Antonio Saboia, Pedro Fasanaro, Luthero Almeida, Thomas Aquino, Laila Garin, Sandro Guerra

Year: 2021

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: Brazil, Portugal


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