Aly Muritiba's luscious-looking film Private Desert begins with a man running alone at night and second person narration: "I always think about you when I'm running." This sense of directness and simplicity is part of the construct of Muritiba's movie of sexual fluidity in rural Brazil. We meet the bulky, strong-backed Daniel (Antonio Saboia; this film is unafraid to show off his beautiful body), who is reeling from losing his job in law enforcement. The film cues that it was due to violence committed on his part towards a rookie recruit now on oxygen in a hospital; otherwise, the story is fairly vague about what happened--the incident symbolized in a cast on Daniel's arm. In addition to this awful situation, Daniel also lives with his father who has dementia and also rendered speechless. This former decorated sergeant known to have some eminence in the area, is bathed and dressed and fed by Daniel; meanwhile Daniel's sister Debora (Cynthia Senek) pleads that their father should be in a nursing home. She has started seeing a new girlfriend--something that seems to visibly unsettle Daniel (is it the disapproval of a lesbian relationship or jealousy or both?--it's suggested that he was also dumped by a woman recently). In the dimly-lit, dingy abode (grease marks on the side of the oven, yellowish sheets and pillowcases, dirt-streaked walls), Daniel hangs on to what he can control, and stubbornly clings to the care of his father, and, perhaps, the machismo and dignity of his father's past. There's a sense of emasculation--through loss of work and loss of health--that emanates through these crucial early scenes. Additionally, Daniel has been finding some solace in text exchanges with Sara (Pedro Fasanaro). He hasn't met her, but is seemingly infatuated. Triggered both by his hopeless situation, and after not hearing from Sara after sending her nudes of himself [a sort of shame and emasculating vulnerability as he puts himself out there (literally) to no response], Daniel packs his bags and takes the tarp off his Chevy truck, driving out in search of her. As the prison-like barred driveway gate opens, and a flick of sensuous and melancholic guitar music kicks in (the subtle score is by Felipe Ayres) and the main title cards appear, Daniel sets out on his journey.
As Daniel desperately searches for Sara, driving into the desert: the barren and open landscapes and open roads under bluish purple and soft golden skies (the lovely cinematography is by Luis Armando Artega), ultimately putting up flyers around the area where she lives, the film switches to the point-of-view of the genderfluid Sara, who works during the day as Pablo at grueling food loading docks and lives with their religious grandmother (Zezita Matos). There's a certain symmetry in the care of familial elders in both Pablo and Daniel's lives. Worried for their safety, of "breaking the spell," and of Daniel's violent past actions (afraid of "which Daniel will show up"), Sara is understandably afraid to meet Daniel, but ultimately they do intersect in a bar. Unprecedented in the movie, there's suddenly a flicker of light in Daniel's eyes and a smile when he sees Sara in person for the first time. Later, under the gauzy haze of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (a wonderfully-used track), there's the suggestion that their relationship will become more intimate.
Muritiba sensitively handles the distresses and desires of the film's characters. It is often a film about those emotions: fear and desire, acting simultaneously. And furthermore, sometimes frustration: Saboia in particular, flares between anger (fighting back tears, walking around in circles, knocking his head against a locker, breathing raggedly and heavily) and stubborn determination. With his inability to healthfully emote, he has mostly inward reactions. His tightly wound cast, of course, becomes a leaden symbol, especially once he rips it free--after banging it against rocks--and his new plane of existence is borne. Fasanaro gives a very intricate turn, the feeling of wanting to get out of one's existence ("a stream of water about to burst and run wild") is made palpable. Overall, because of these two turns and the lush photography, the movie becomes a delicate character study and a stirring rumination on sexuality. ***