Hitting the road is a perennial means of trying to forget one's troubles. In this exquisitely mobile lamentation, a lovelorn Brazilian geologist embarks on a business trip to chart the course of a planned canal but, more vitally, to recover from a failed relationship. Part travelogue, part anthropological essay, part confessional cri de coeur, I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You has a stirring elemental feel and constitutes filmmaking at its most basic and transfixing. A week-long run at New York's Anthology Film Archives should draw droves of purity-seeking cinephiles.
The English translation of the Portuguese title (Viajo Porque Preciso, Volto Porque Te Amo) may sound especially unwieldy, yet there's nothing cumbersome about the picture by co-writers/directors Marcelo Gomes and Karim Ainouz, who were born near the Sertao region in which the movie is set. We never see 35-five-year-old protagonist Jose Renato (Irandhir Santos, the only credited actor) as he documents his passage through a dry, evocative landscape in Northeast Brazil. He narrates in voice-over and, we have to assume, is responsible for creating the movie's collage of moving and still images that simultaneously charts his work-related journey and his emotional situation.
Our unseen guide behind the wheel has a straightforward delivery, a voice that's far from disembodied and yet still elusive. His heart isn't in the job because he knows what an arduous task it will be to build a canal in this arid landscape and because he knows the destruction and displacement it will bring to the local population. Most of all, he's pining for his wife whom he calls Blondie and addresses directly. Apparently she's a botanist, one explanation for the many lovely flowers he photographs and which attest to his wistful state of mind. Gradually, we realize there's serious trouble on the home front. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's been dumped.
Jose spies the phrase that is the movie's title in a piece of artwork on the wall of a gas station. He can't help but relate everything he sees and everyone he encounters to his own condition. Self-pity bleeds into compassion for those who will be displaced by the planned canal. What is meant to be a 30-day trip through this isolated region stretches into 50-plus (though fast-moving) days as he loses the thread of his assignment. To cure his loneliness and despair, he sleeps with a series of women-for-hire. (Put it this way, the package of six condoms he tells us he buys wouldn't have lasted during his whoring spree.)
Along with carnal distraction, he takes every opportunity to opine about love or hear what others have to say on the subject. He interviews one girl about her aspirations and can ruefully relate to her goal of finding a man and settling down into a "leisure-life." At one point, Jose complains about the food he's been eating before admitting "No, it's me I can't stand." Lonely, fatigued and cynical, he's looking for any balm and for any kind of deeper meaning, knowing full well that there's no explaining the vagaries of love.
Fortunately, the viewer can mine plenty of significance in the color and composition that grace Heloisa Passos's videography. Even a subject as perennial as heartbreak—or images as familiarly beautiful as orange-vermillion skies at sunset—are reanimated by the striking way in which Gomes and Ainouz juxtapose images and make eclectic music choices.
Toward the end, Jose arrives at the part of a wide river where the canal will begin. He wanders through a beautiful town that will be the first to be flooded by the canal. The town has been abandoned and the sorrow we feel for the inhabitants is bound up with our attitude to our guide's melancholy. And yet we know, as he does, that he will get over his loss and rejection, whether he keeps moving or not. The same cannot be said for the displaced residents of the Sertao region. They won't soon escape the effects of the canal when it is built; it's obviously much easier for one jilted man to dive back into life.
And so the bittersweet upshot of I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You is that landscapes can dwarf or swallow people, however our ability to fill them with emotion and sense is even more powerful than how they might be changed by nature or man. People are not over-determined by their physical location, and it doesn't much matter to a person's broken heart whether they are at rest or in frantic motion.
Distributor: FiGa Films
Cast: Irandhir Santos
Directors/Screenwriters: Marcelo Gomes and Karim Ainouz
Producers: Joao Vieira Jr. and Daniela Capelato
Genre: Travel/Romance/Drama; Portuguese-language, subtitled
Running time: 75 min
Release date: March 25 NY