A middle-age Native man named Justino (Regis Myrupu) stands at attention in front of a steel shipping container, blinking his eyes wearily in the nocturnal gloom. He is wearing a hardhat and reflective safety vest, and beneath the latter is – somewhat ominously – a bulletproof vest. He wobbles ever-so-slightly as the camera pushes in on his placid countenance. His eyelids droop. On the soundtrack, the muted buzz of an idled industrial facility gradually mingles with the music of a tropical forest: chirping, trilling, shrieking. Slowly, Justino slides into upright slumber. It’s perfect scene-setting for director Maya Da-Rin’s still, quiet, slightly dreamlike feature The Fever, which feels like an attempt to replicate the sensation of being half-awake. In that mental twilight, it seems possible to be at once insensible and hyper-alert, the mind strangely receptive to the murmurs beneath the waking surface of the world.
Justino grew up in the forests of northwest Brazil among his fellow Tucano people, but he relocated to the bustling Amazonas capital of Manaus some two decades ago in search of work. He has carved out a humble but stable niche for himself, successfully transitioning from backbreaking construction work to a more easygoing security job. Currently, he works at the massive industrial port located at the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers, flipping back and forth between day and night shifts. Mostly, his job involves watching the world go by, which is slightly more stimulating by day, when the port’s countless shipping containers are being shuffled around like two-ton Lego bricks. After his shift is over, Justino takes a long bus ride to the city’s outskirts and then walks the rest of the way to the little house he shares with his daughter, Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto). Most days, he ends his routine by collapsing gratefully into his hammock.
It’s not a glamorous life, but it’s a steady one – or, at least, it used to be. Justino’s wife died some months back of an unspecified illness, and although he is doing his best to stick to his routine and maintain a stoic demeanor, it’s clear that this unexpected loss has wounded him. What’s more, his wife’s passing has been followed by a succession of destabilizing events, both large and small. Vanessa, who works as a nurse at a local health clinic, is preparing to depart for five years of medical school some 1,200 miles away in Brasilia. A large crack has suddenly appeared on the rear outer wall of Justino's concrete house, which he built years ago with his own hands. His job – which has never been especially challenging but at least puts food on the table – suddenly seems lonely, tedious, and unwelcoming. The other security guard at the port has been replaced with a new hire, a faintly surly White man who overshares during their shift changes and condescendingly calls Justino “Indian.” Local news channels report breathlessly on a mysterious wild predator that has been sighted stalking the less developed periphery of Manaus. Everything seems newly alienating and unbalanced, as if Justino’s entire existence had been silently converted into a liminal space.
The title of Da-Rin’s feature alludes to the puzzling illness that bedevils Justino, a fever that soaks him in clammy sweat and mutates his dreams into portentous nightmares. This sickness comes and goes, but it is something more than a mere physical ailment, pointing to a deeper, spiritual crisis. It’s not incidental that Justino is suddenly thinking more and more of his birth village deep in the Amazon, and of everything that he left behind when he emigrated to this world of steel and cement, where food only comes in plastic packages. Da-Rin implicitly concedes that some of this homesickness may be the myopic grumbling of a man plodding into late middle age. When Justino’s older brother and sister-in-law visit him in Manaus, they reminisce about the old days and lovingly chastise Justino’s married adult son for his Big City softness. (They agree that the younger generation wouldn’t last 10 minutes working the palm fields like they once did.)
However, underneath the catholic discontent of aging men grousing about the changing world, there is perhaps something more vexing at play. Between the general dreariness and racist microaggressions of his workplace, the modern, developed world seems less and less appealing to Justino each day. Exuding phony concern, a human-resources manager gives him a written warning for ambiguous misconduct, then suggests his Native status (“condition”) might qualify him for a government subsidy. The jungle that encroaches on the road near Justino’s house seems fearsome and mesmerizing lately. On several occasions, he discerns a dark shape moving in the chittering underbrush, and it seems equally likely that he might run in terror from this shadow or toward it in exhilaration. Eventually his dreams and waking life start to blur together, as though a hole had been covertly sliced in the barrier between the White and Native worlds, allowing all manner of shapeshifting denizens to slip through.
The Fever is a slow, still film. No one raises their voice or hand to anyone else, and nothing conventionally exciting happens until the feature’s penultimate scene. Justino is a reticent, methodical man, the sort of person who always speaks and moves carefully, and the film that surrounds him seems to adapt to his personality. It’s easy to see why Da-Rin is often compared to acclaimed Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Their works share a similar dreamy, unhurried vibe and an interest in the way that the mystical might manifest in contemporary life. However, Da-Rin’s sensibility is a touch more grounded and less inclined toward the abstract distractions of color, sound, and texture. (Argentine slow-cinema luminary Lisandro Alonso seems a more apt comparison.) The Fever is an arresting film both visually and aurally, but its gaze is (mostly) focused on Justino. It is his growing uncertainty and dissatisfaction that seem to propel the story away from its initial grounded realism and into the realm of surreal allegory. This makes for a quiet, brooding work, but one that eventually demands a spontaneous receptiveness on the viewer’s part – not unlike the way that a person will murmur assent to almost anything when teetering on the edge of wakefulness.
Myrupu’s marvelously restrained and yet emotional performance is crucial to the film’s richness. The actor conveys an impressive amount of information simply with the way his gaze wanders, his lips tighten, and his shoulders slump. When Justino reads his daughter’s med-school acceptance letter, his tone of voice and body language subtly change, as paternal pride is slowly replaced by an empty-nest anxiety that he would prefer to conceal. After Justino’s dressing-down by HR, Myrupu expresses an enormous downshift in the character’s demeanor simply by carrying himself slightly differently as he trudges home from work. It’s fine-grained, masterclass acting, and the lynchpin to this slippery tale of a man obliged to reckon with the fraught dichotomies he has long tolerated in his identity.
The Fever is now available to rent via virtual cinemas from KimStim. Purchase a ticket between March 19 - April 1 and the proceeds will help support the Webster University Film Series.