Every single frame of Vazante from Brazilian filmmaker Daniela Thomas is like a gorgeous painting or a fleeting moment lost too soon. Here, in crisp and glorious black and white, Thomas offsets the bitter ugliness of 1800s agrarian Brazil without ignoring it, creating a world populated with pitiless businessman-farmers and undue inheritors, slaves and madwomen.

We follow António (Adriano Carvalho), the owner of a sprawling farm estate that came with his wife's dowry. Within the film's first few moments, as António heads home from business, black slaves in tow, his wife dies during childbirth. Tragedy leaves Antonio listless and lazy as the farm chugs along in his periphery.

He marries again in short order, this time to his wife's niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), a girl so young as to be creepy to the viewer but probably commonplace for the people of the time. Regardless, it's uncomfortable; and when António leaves once more, Beatriz finds herself in charge of the fields and working alongside a young slave named Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos) whose mother, we see, has been forced to sleep with António on more than one occasion.

If the setup seems simple enough, it does falter under artistic choices and a running time that could have been more concise had Thomas not decided to let symbolism come to the forefront almost always. This art-film tack, while visually stunning, could prove tedious for viewers who prefer a simple narrative. We see, for example, that the lives of slaves was hardly easy—but, then, we already knew that, even if it hadn't occurred to us that something like 5 million such people had been shipped to the South American nation at or around the time the film is set. Catching a glimpse into the lives of those who owned them, tragic or not, seems to overshadow their suffering, even as the film dances around focusing on it repeatedly.

At its core, Vazante appears to want to dissect ideas of colonialism, patriarchy and gender, like a look at the bedrock of today's sociopolitical shortcomings in almost all milieus, but elongated scenes and an almost sickening pallor throughout constantly distracts us from any sort of central premise. This film is beautiful and unbelievably well-shot, yes, but it is also a challenge; and not always in the best ways.

+Stunning cinematography; incredibly well-made
-Narrative choices lacking; sometimes painfully long

Direcred by Thomas
With Carvalho, Nastas and Dos Anjos
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 116 min.