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Nobody Leaves Alive (Ninguém Sai Vivo Daqui)

A woman's hold on reality begins to disintegrate after she is is incarcerated in Brazil’s notorious Colonia psychiatric hospital because she is pregnant outside of marriage - live from the Critics' Picks Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Lovingly shot in a stylish black and white that both makes the whole thing feel like a dream and detracts from any sense of reality, this opens with a young woman being bundled by two men into what looks like a cattle truck. Inside the truck are other people, and the group is clearly being sent somewhere specific.

Once off the train they are frogmarched down a country track, through some wrought metal gates of late 19th / early 20th Century design and into a hallway where they are separated into men and women and the women (since it is one woman’s story we are following here) are taken to a large, tiled room and hosed down by two women, the younger of whom is Laura.

Then the woman we are following is taken for interview with a man who denies he’s a doctor. Her name is Elisa, and she explains there’s been some sort of mix-up. The non-doctor has a form signed by her doctor and her father, certifying her as schizophrenic. This diagnosis is news to Elisa. She reveals that she is four months pregnant by her boyfriend, not the man her father wishes her to marry, and the fact is duly noted. But she’s told she’s here to stay.

Although Elisa and the film’s other characters are fictional creations, the institution is the notorious, real life Colony / Hospital Colônia, a psychiatric hospital situated in the city of Barbacena, Brazil. The Colony opened in 1903 and closed in 1980, during which time malpractice and torture were common within its walls. It was built to hold 200 inmates at any one time, yet was housing around 5 000 by 1960, and official estimates place the total number of deaths on the premises at 60 000. It has been compared to the Nazi death camps. Many people were placed there not for reasons of genuine medical diagnosis but for refusing to conform to the social norms of the day – prostitutes, homosexuals, women who’d lost their virginity before marriage, the homeless, and people disliked by the rich and powerful.

This not a documentary and, as such, doesn’t attempt to explain this historical background. It follows that if you put that many people together in such a space (although the Colony as portrayed here doesn’t appear to house anything like the number of patients it did in real life, as the production sticks to around a dozen or so inmates), some of them are going to develop mental health problems if they don’t already have them in the first place.

Thus, Elisa is warned by an older black woman Vanda to watch out for Rosana (Ana Kutner), and sure enough on her very first night in the shared dorm, she’s woken from sleep by Rosana putting a knife to her throat and claiming she owns everything on the premises, including Elisa’s purse and its contents. There’s a struggle, and by the time a guard arrives, Rosana’s head lies in a pool of blood on the floor. Her body is taken away to be disposed of. There’s no funeral or memorial to commemorate her passing; she’s simply removed and gone. Elisa bonds with Vanda, who appears, like her, to have been placed in the Colony for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Yet Vanda appears to be more together than anyone else in there. She has a strong Christian faith and regularly prays for both the departed and the living inmates; perhaps that’s what keeps her sane.

Vanda indicates another inmate, Valesca, who was the lover of a prominent local married man who had her put away. He visits periodically, and every time he does so, Valesca is convinced he has come to take her away. Ignoring Vanda’s warning that escape attempts from the place end badly, Elisa plans an escape with Valesca, but it goes horribly wrong when Valesca is shot dead by the guards.

There are further horrors in store for Elisa. When her mother comes to visit, Elisa’s initial expectation that her mother has come to take her home is dashed when her mother explains that it’s all about her father’s wishes, and that Elisa’s coming home just isn’t possible. Later, we watch the institution’s leader Juraci participate in a bizarre “St. John’s” wedding ceremony with Elisa, presided over by a fake priest, a strategy intended to give Juraci legal licence to physically abuse her as his ‘wife’.

There is no easy way out. Following the place’s rules provides no guarantee of staying alive, with more people being killed by such things as electric shock treatment or having to sleep outside so that work can be done on their sleeping quarters. As the days and months of her stay there pass, Elisa increasingly sees and talks to the people she has known who have died there; they appear as real to her as those still living. The film cleverly presents these apparitions just like it presents its still living characters, and the result is that apart from knowing that certain people have died and that others are still alive, there’s no real difference in their appearance or indication as to which is which. The longer this goes on, the more it seems that Elisa’s grasp on reality is slipping away and, since the narrative is shot from her point of view, whatever events are going on become increasingly hard to discern in terms of whether they’re really happening or, as is more probable, they’re only happening inside her head. Andre Ristum infuses his film with just the right amount of ambiguity.

The feature was shot alongside the Colonia TV series (2021) by the same director, using the same cast and crew and a similar black and white aesthetic, but with material shot specially for the feature.

Nobody Leaves Alive just premiered at the Critics’ Picks Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Jeremy Clarke - 14-11-2023

Jeremy Clarke has been writing about movies in various UK print publications since the late 1980s as well as online in recent years. He’s excited by movies which provoke audiences, upset convent...

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