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An epic of desperation, clotted emotions, racism and innocence destroyed, “Vazante” is chillingly beautiful and thoroughly awful, stuffed with grief and tragedy while wrestling with the dynamics of power. Yeah, it hurts.

It’s 1821, in a remote Brazilian wilderness. A slave trader, Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), comes home to find his wife has died in childbirth, leaving him alone with her demented mother. Antonio commands respect from the slaves who serve him, but at the same time he is isolated. He doesn’t communicate with people, he orders them around.

Soon he settles on a new bride: His wife’s 12-year-old niece, Beatriz (Luana Nastas). Her impoverished parents, stuck living off Antonio in the middle of nowhere, can’t refuse his request. And the coquettish Beatriz, oblivious to the implications, invites his attention with giggles.

So the slave trader marries his child bride, in hopes of fathering a child, even as she is too young to bear children. He’ll wait for her to mature; in the meantime he’ll go about his business, which takes him away from his home compound for long periods of time. During which the pre-adolescent Beatriz finds solace and connection playing with the slave children.

Eventually Beatriz becomes pregnant and Antonio becomes attentive. But is it too late?

Director and co-writer Daniela Thomas is a wonder. She stages shots that look like museum paintings — landscapes, dining room interiors — and then lingers on them in black-and-white majesty. The lack of color lends a sense of antiquity and isolation, but it also offers a stark grace that grinds against the awful humanity of the story.

And oh, that humanity. Thomas finds it in big swells and small touches — the way Antonio hates shoes that pinch his feet, the way Beatriz is terrorized by her older sister when she’s chosen to be a bride. In a slave who eats mud to free himself from life’s bonds. This is a film that’s lived in.

It’s also a film that guts the viewer. The isolated, entitled Antonio; the naive, vivacious Beatriz; the downtrodden, mostly resigned slaves. You know this isn’t going to end well. It shouldn’t.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘Vazante’

GRADE: A

Not rated

Running time: 116 minutes

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