Luana Nastas and Adriano Carvalho in Vazante (Ricardo Teles/Music Box Films)

Daniela Thomas’s Vazante is about masters and slaves. The black slaves march on foot for miles, work to exhaustion, and are pitted against each other and sexually used. Chattel of another kind, white women, are bought, sold, and controlled by husbands and fathers. It’s inevitable that their fates should converge. Part 19th-century family drama, part frontier epic, and all spellbindingly atmospheric, the film derives the peak of its dark powers from the dance of death around Brazil’s original sin.

With the face of a haunted saint, a miner named Antonio (Adriano Carvalho) silently tears baptismal robes to shreds; he has recently arrived home from a tortuous overland trip to find his wife dead in childbirth and his son stillborn. He’ll replace the deceased with a marriage to his niece Beatriz (Luana Nastas), who is no more than a beautiful child. Antonio and Beatriz’s union on a desolate farm looks like the unhappiest wedding day in history, witnessed by her bitter, poverty-ravaged family and overhung by a baleful sky. The lush black-and-white cinematography brings out the majesty and menace of a forbidding landscape, the hidden emotions, and the harsh details of wear and tear in a setting where living is a never-ending struggle.

Unrest seethes on the plantation, barely concealed—slave rebellions hint at trouble to come. Frustrated with his child bride’s sexual immaturity, Antonio forces himself on the enslaved Felicia (Jai Baptista), demanding her favors in plain view of her young son. Starved for affection, Beatriz forms a bond of her own with the boy (Vinicius dos Anjos). The two tense situations move closer and closer, ending in an act of vengeance which feels foretold.

Vazante takes time to build to a climax. Performances are restrained and dialogue limited. The movie shrouds some of its characters’ motives and holds back from revealing everything a viewer wants to know. That withholding spirit creates a sense of undertow and disorientation. In addition to the high-contrast, gorgeously composed shots (often featuring bodies framed through slats and fences, as if imprisoned), the rich sound design adds a dimension deeper than mere texture. The sound of melancholy bells on a weary caravan and a symphony of frogs, birds, and running water immerse us in a world with little but nature and God’s wrath for company.

Because of its extremely high level of craft, it’s tempting to see this as a polished art-house film bent on wowing us with stylized design. But the movie’s scenes of violence strike real fear. Vazante seizes on something evil and never looks away.

Directed by Daniela Thomas
Written by Thomas and Beto Amaral
Portuguese with English subtitles
Brazil. 116 min. Not rated
With Adriano Carvalho, Luana Nastas, Sandra Corveloni, Juliana Carneiro da Cunha, and Roberto Audio