You can always trust film festivals to throw a handful of truly bizarre curveballs into their line-ups – and this year’s Jury Award Winner for the Berlin Film Festival’s Teddy Awards (the side ceremony honouring the best LGBT films to premiere) is one such unique experience. Greek documentarian Evangelia Kranioti has, in sixty minutes, crafted a truly unforgettable essay film that marks the stark differences between the homogenised nature of Rio de Janeiro’s carnival and underground queer celebrations elsewhere in the city. Narrated by transgender icon Luana Muniz, who passed away shortly after the making of the documentary, Obscuro Barroco possesses a staying power that significantly outweighs its brief running time.
Rio de Janeiro is, of course, one of the world’s most noted gay-friendly cities – but Kranioti’s film does a great job of exploring a subculture that still parties underground, even as millions of people line the streets to celebrate. The film often feels like a lucid fever dream; Kranioti’s camera focuses on extravagant firework celebrations by the beach, as well as on young children partying, before heading underground to find a gaggle of transgender women partying raucously, often stripping naked to show pride in their bodies caught midway through the transformative period. We’re told via narration that Rio is a “transformative city”, and to the film’s credit, this is the only time this thesis feels somewhat overblown.
Instead, via the dreamlike footage captured by Kranioti, we see a city’s culture transformed into openly being influenced by LGBT culture, but with millions of people dancing aware largely unaware of this fact. It also neatly juxtaposes with the members of the transgender community we follow; they are proud of their bodies and identity, but party away from the wider public’s glare, while the people at carnival are hidden behind extravagant dresses and masks. As you can probably guess, the film invites in-depth academic readings far greater than I’m able to give here – but it also works as a pure sensory experience, a poetic tour off the beaten tracks of one of the planet’s most vibrant cities, as well as giving a sense of the reality hiding behind the picture postcard image.
Luana Muniz was a nationally famous LGBT icon in Brazil for decades, with her life the subject of a more conventional recent documentary, Luana Muniz: Daughter of the Moon. For a trailblazing, controversial public figure like Muniz, a talking heads documentary may give you the backstory, but it doesn’t really feel representative of her unique spirit. Obscuro Barroco’s use of her words offers what many in Brazil will find to be a different, more sensitive side of a well known public figure, while also doubling as a complex letter to the city itself, looming large over every frame (either literally or metaphorically) to feel like an ever-present character within the film. It’s a cliche to say that a film’s setting feels like a character due to its omnipresence, but if ever there was a film worthy of dusting that cliche off for, it would be this.
Obscuro Barroco is a singular cinematic experience. It’s unconventional, but don’t let its experimental nature put you off. Instead, let director Evangelia Kranioti take your hand and guide you through a glamorous city in a light you’ve never seen it shown in before.