There's a mild — and probably intentional — paradox implicit in the title of the Brazilian film "Vazante," which, as translated by subtitles, refers to a "surge," but more literally means the very opposite: an ebb, or receding, of the tide. Still, as suggested by the opening scene, in which an unidentified woman is shown dying in childbirth, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Such cyclical polarities — of life and death, dependence and autonomy, risings and fallings — inform and enrich this film, by director Walter Salles's longtime collaborator Daniela Thomas. Every frame of Inti Briones's starkly gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, which celebrates the beauty of barren mud as much as the potential of a 12-year-old girl, hints at an inherent contradiction, either visually, in the narrative or in its larger themes.
Set in 1821 colonial Brazil, on the estate of a middle-aged Portuguese cattle rancher and slave trader named Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), the story takes its sweet time laying out the premise, in an often wordless screenplay by Thomas and Beto Amaral. Such cinematic foot-dragging, which seems to focus as much on brooding close-ups as plot development, may initially frustrate the impatient, although the climax, which comes at the last possible moment, is an emotionally devastating corker. Viewers accustomed to cleaner, quicker exposition may find themselves in agreement with one character, who, when asked, "What was that about?" — after one particularly oblique scene, deep into the movie — replies, "I don't know."
It eventually becomes clear that it is Antonio's wife who has died, and who is replaced, after some needless digressions, by her niece Beatriz (Luana Tito Nastas), a preteen who has not quite reached childbearing age. While he waits for his child bride to reach puberty, Antonio satisfies himself sexually with a slave (Jai Baptista), whose adolescent son (Vinicius Dos Anjos) also finds himself, ill-advisedly, drawing close to his master's new wife, especially during Antonio's long absences to conduct business.
This is a recipe neither for a happy marriage nor a happy ending, but Thomas keeps things at a simmer for the longest time, forestalling the story's ultimate boil-over until the final minute or so of the tale. "Vazante" meanwhile concerns itself with other clashes: between slave and master; slave and slave (some of whom come from different African countries and cannot communicate with one another); and between one notably self-confident free black man, Jeremias (Fabrício Boliveira), and the more subservient human chattel over whom he is hired to work.
Women, too, are treated like property under this gathering storm of a yarn, whose subject matter of racism and sexism is still powerfully timely, despite the period setting of the film, and its intimations of an old world on the brink of change. The mining of diamonds, which once used to be the main local industry, has dried up, and the soil seems inhospitable to farming, despite Jeremias's insistence that it can be made to yield crops. "Fire stirs up the womb of the Earth," he says, after clearing a field by burning it to the ground.
If that sounds like both a metaphor for the film's contradictory themes and a warning of the scorched-earth conflagration still to come, it is. "Vazante's" explosive denouement — both shockingly sudden and implicitly foretold — suggests that the old ways cannot last, but that they won't give up without an ugly fight.
Unrated. At Landmark's West End Cinema. Contains violence, sex, nudity and mature thematic material. In Portuguese with subtitles. 116 minutes.