A quietly intense performance from Antonio Saboia in slow-burning Brazilian character drama Private Desert (Deserto Particular) challenges assumptions about masculinity and desire. Writer-director Aly Muritiba, who co-writes with Henrique Dos Santos, crafts an intoxicating and subtle piece of cinema.
Daniel (Saboia) is suspended from his role as a police officer pending an internal investigations into his violent behaviour. Stuck in jobless limbo and caring for his Alzheimer’s-suffering former police sergeant father, Daniel abandons his life to pursue Sara, his internet love affair who has stopped communicating with him. Travelling to Sara’s rural home, Daniel begins a fool’s errand to track down the mysterious love interest.
Opening with dramatic narration and shots of Daniel broodingly running towards the camera, the chiselled forty-something speaks poetically of the love interest who has captured his attention. This enigmatic opening is just the beginning for Daniel with Private Desert keeping its cards close to its chest as it slowly unveils the officer’s backstory. Daniel spends his days caring for his Alzheimer’s stricken father and struggling to piece together work, whilst former-colleagues hint at a violent incident which saw the cop suspended from his job pending an investigation. Distracting himself from the upcoming deliberation, Daniel regularly messages Sara, the person who has enchanted him. Sending explicit photos and romantic messages prompts no response, leading Daniel to abandon his scattershot life and pursue his muted online lover.
What follows is an intriguing meditation on masculinity and repression as more is gradually revealed about Sara. Daniel is hyper-masculine, physically muscular and broad, and expressing himself with a violent energy. Working in the police force, he is the stereotypical image of masculinity and even when in the pursuit of Sara fails to show a particularly vulnerable side. However after the first hour progresses we are introduced to Sara (Pedro Fasanaro) with Daniel meeting her in a dimly-lit club. It soon becomes clear (to all but Daniel) that Sara is actually Robson, a young man attempting to channel his true identity and essence through Sara. A seductive dance scene set to Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart shows the entranced Daniel transfixed by Sara’s beauty, enchanted in finally finding her. Is Daniel blinded by desperation, desire, the mere idea of Sara, or the cumulative weight of his own traumas?
Muritiba soon delves into Sara’s life as Robson. Living with his grandmother and repressing his true self in small-town Brazil. We wonder what might Daniel’s reaction be when uncovering the truth – adding a natural sense of tension to Private Desert. Muritiba invests us in the dangerous dynamic between Daniel and Sara – Daniel is clouded by toxic masculinity and a life of stifling patriarchal dominance, whilst Sara is fractured into his true unrepressed self in female alter-ego and the young man restrained from being himself by familial pressures. Linked by their desire and the tension of the unlikely pairing, Muritiba’s narrative grips capturing the complex dynamic of the two protagonists and the development of their relationship and its home truths.
There could be something problematic in the use of a LGBTQ+ character to help solve the internalised problems of a ‘straight male’ protagonist, yet Muritiba fleshes the character of Sara out with enough depth and compassion to avoid this.
Private Desert grips through its compassionate performance from Fasanaro and a fiery turn from Saboia. An intriguing study into passionate desire through the guise of toxic masculinity provides a strong context for this mysterious romance to unfold within.