In 2020, Amazon deforestation in Brazil increased by almost 10%, the highest number in twelve years, with over 11,000 square metres gone. Since taking office at the beginning of 2019, president Jair Bolsonaro has consistently made a mockery of environmental enforcement laws, prioritising the interests of farmers and miners, frequently employing the perfunctory excuse of favouring agriculture to aid economic development. Once, when asked about what could be done to better safeguard the environment, the president simply said; “poop every other day.”

“There are a lot of Indians there, real ones, with arrows and sticks. There are none like that around here anymore, they’re all tame now,” a colleague tells Justino (Regis Myrupu), an Indigenous man who works as a security guard at a harbour in the city of Manaus. This offensive, wildly ignorant statement bluntly encapsulates the crisis at the centre of The Fever, Maya Da-Rin’s exploration of contemporary Indigenous identity. The words, which may seem shocking – and, in truth, very much are – have become normalised by Bolsonaro’s uncensored public hate speech, the president an openly racist, sexist and xenophobic pseudo-leader. In a 1998 interview, the then Federal Deputy made clear his feelings towards the Indigenous community as he viciously spouted “it’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”

The Fever takes place under this very toxic, dangerous social climate. We don’t learn much about the reasons why Justino left his tribe, but one can easily assume it was to provide for his two children – now adults and starting to grow families of their own. His job is morose, an ever-repeating day that grants the man a vast amount of time for contemplation but offers little else. “The job isn’t tiring, I just have to walk around. Like a hunter with no prey,” he says. At work, he faces the flagrant discrimination of a colleague, who refers to him solely as “Indian” and the more nuanced bias of the HR representative, who evaluates him through outdated, prejudiced misconceptions, believing him to be lazy and uncommitted. When mentioning the possibility of letting Justino go under rightful cause, the employer is quick to bring up the fact he can always resort to cultural heritage benefits – evoking the very misguided assumption that minorities can easily live off governmental allowances.

When Justino’s daughter, Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), is accepted into a highly competitive medical programme and announces she is moving to the country’s capital of Brasília, Justino develops a permanent fever. The ailment coincides with strange attacks around the region, the barriers between the real and the mystical blurred, as Justino grows more and more feverish. Vanessa, who was already questioning the move and the consequences of stepping further away from her roots, is engulfed by the concerns she has over not only her father’s physical but mental health.

Da-Rin’s background as a documentarian might be behind the film’s muddled pace, her attachment to the study of the central character ultimately stalling the narrative. While the director’s previous experience aids her character development and the way in which she works with non-actors to further a sense of authenticity, what begins as an inspired portrait of the everlasting consequences of cultural displacement, gradually turns tiresome. Da-Rin’s undivided attention to Justino, however, is also the film’s biggest merit. When the quietness of the man is juxtaposed to the loudness of the city, the camera lovingly resting upon his face as if to say “you are seen.” The Fever feels like something special. When it moves away from this journey of introspection in favour of supernatural elements, this magic is lost. 

“They don’t even know how to look into dreams, they don’t know anything,” says Justino after leaving the hospital – his condition still undiagnosed. It is a tired statement, the words brewing from a mix of exhaustion and frustration. The threshold between his two contrasting worlds suddenly goes from a numbingly familiar limbo to dangerous quicksand – the realisation of his otherness too painful to bear. The grasp Da-Rin has on this precise feeling is what ultimately grants The Fever leniency as, for all of its stumbles, it delivers a vital, heartfelt alert. 

Rating: ★★★½

The Fever Opens Friday, March 19 2021 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York City, and Select Cities Nationwide (US)