In my previous text, I discussed the film Haulout by the sibling duo Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, one of the two most striking short films at the Berlinale Festival. This text focuses on the Brazilian movie Sunday Morning by Bruno Ribeiro who also received the prestigious Silver Lion – Jury Prize in the Berlinale Shorts section.
An adventure within
Gabriela, a young Black pianist, is getting ready for an important recital, which brings a lot of self-doubt. It is also the first anniversary of her mother’s death. In this mentally challenging period, various memories, desires and insecurities come to the surface. The present blends with the past, dreams interfere with reality, and Gabriele sits at the piano and keeps on playing.
The story outline makes it clear that the problems Ribeiro portrays might not be fully visible at first, and hence viewer openness, and even engagement is required. Rather than telling a coherent story, the film is a sensitive probe into the inner world of the protagonist, which allows us to access our own emotional reaction.
This unconventional concept is immediately obvious. After the opening credits, it is hearing, not sight that takes over as the dominant sense. Following after the production company logos and the film title, we already hear the diegetic sounds of a person sitting at the piano and then the initial notes. There is no picture but another twenty seconds of black screen, accompanied by live piano music. It is a kind of hint that points out that music will play a significant role in the movie. It will be an integral part of the observed world, which is then confirmed in the anticipated first shot. It stretches for almost three and a half minutes, with three minutes being a static full shot, capturing the protagonist with her back turned to us and playing the piano in her room. It is almost like documentary observation that shows naked (visually not too attractive) reality.
When Gabriela stops playing, there is a surprise. “Are you okay?” a stranger calls out outside the frame. Someone has been there all along. Tenuously, we could compare this moment to the vulnerable revelation of the walruses in Haulout. The gradually controlled supply of information, the slow start and pared down form work together to make room for the surprise. Gabriela gets up and walks over to her nude partner on the couch. After the three-minute static shot, the camera pans with her. As long as she was playing the piano, she was in her own “ecstatic” world. Yet as soon as the music died down, there is space for other people as well and the camera confirms this shift. From the very start, the film world is represented as an almost impenetrable inner space that is connected to music and which the viewer must properly attune to.
Gabriela tells the man her dream about her mother and her quiet house, and then she explains that it is the first anniversary of her mother’s death the next day. It feels like this is still an unprocessed wound. This mention of a dream legitimates “shifts” in the narrative; unclear boundaries are a unifying element in the film. At the end of their conversation, we find out about the upcoming piano recital and Gabriela’s fear of failure. These premises – music, mother, dream and the recital (that does not take place in the story) – are subject to free play with no clear message, and individual layers, emotions and scenes are layered on top of one another as we join the protagonist in a special, subjective time.
Alone with herself
In the next scene, the world seems to expand on the outside as we see the protagonist during a piano lesson. However, the scene ends with Gabriela shutting down again and underscoring the previous scene. This is achieved using the formal style – we see Gabriela standing over the student in a full shot from behind as in the opening scene. The story also follows suit – after the student finishes playing, both he and Gabriela look somewhere outside the frame. Once again, there is somebody in the room, this time it is the boy’s mother who is also a reminder of Gabriela’s late mother. Unlike the previous shots that could be tens of seconds long, this one is very short and serves as the symbol of motherhood.
A night-time scene, with the protagonist swimming alone in the pool. The rhythm continues the transformation – this action is also in a short shot and could imply a shift toward a more conventional narrative. As if time beyond piano has a “normal” flow. This time, Ribeiro destabilizes the viewer in a different, unexpected way. The protagonist gets out of the pool and stares somewhere to the other side. This is followed by her point-of-view shot that shows a mysterious Black woman staring back in her direction; we can also hear non-diegetic rumbling sound that, along with the mystery, generates horror tension (like Haulout just before the arrival of walruses). The mysterious woman is never seen again. The viewer is left alone with their own sense of uncertainty but can get curious about the meaning. Was it just in Gabriela’s head? Does the woman have anything to do with the late mother? The grim atmosphere of the scene would certainly fit the bill.
The vague nature of the narrative is then intensified using a dissolve (which allows us to interpret the action that follows as a dream) and transition to a scene that is even more ambiguous. We find ourselves in a darkened room and Gabriela sits down and starts playing. The shot is static and over three minutes long. After the protagonist stops playing, she looks outside the frame. The method used in real life gets repeated in the dream. This time, there is an older Black lady (not the same one as in the previous scene) who – without any kind of reaction and with a stern look – gets up and leaves. The other chairs are empty.
Filling in the gaps
Considering the information that we don’t have available; we have no choice but to try to tackle the scene cognitively and come up with our own interpretation. Is it the protagonist’s anxiety materialized in a dream about the upcoming recital? Is the woman who left the room her mother, whom Gabriela could never make happy, even though her playing was perfect (as seen just now)? Was it her idea that Gabriela should start playing? Does she play music because of her, thinking of her every time she plays, even though it has been a year since she died? Did her mother ever clap for her?
If we start filling in the gaps and participate in the game, the result is greater viewer immersion. Understandably, not everyone is interested in this kind of process. With the constant need to guess and interpret because we have no other choice (this is not a film that would be captivating for its attractive packaging or dramatic storyline), we are forced to become part of the action and find ourselves in Gabriela’s shoes.
The next day – on the anniversary of her mother’s death – the protagonist arrives in a quiet seaside town. After a walk through the streets, she comes to one of the houses, takes the keys from the flowerpot, unlocks the door and goes inside. She walks through the house, after a while stops and looks into another room. In a point-of-view shot, we see a little girl at the table who does not appear again for the rest of the movie. Is this the childhood home that was mentioned in the introduction as part of the dream? Is the girl Gabriela?
The protagonist then comes to an old piano and starts playing. Compared to the previous static, wide shots, we now observe a close-up of her face. The experience and being in one’s own world have more urgency this time. When the protagonist finishes, we expect from our previous experience that somebody is again waiting outside the frame. Gabriela listens to the fading notes and looks up at the light falling on her face through the window. Is she looking at her mother in heaven? Can she handle the important recital without her support? While the “nightmare” scene with the strict woman leaving the hall hinted at something unhealthy in their relationship, the last shot radiates reconciliation, gratitude and positive emotions.
The film does not answer any of the questions. It is an open form that invites the viewer to think. Due to this almost mathematical motif (i.e., a long scene of piano playing and then looking outside the frame), Sunday Morning can also function as a kind of empty formula for inserting one’s own values, which is reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s work. Music can be connected to the mother’s death in many ways. The frustrating control of information is somewhat surprisingly the film’s greatest asset because it engages the viewer in the game and forces us to step into the protagonist’s mental state between reality and dream and helps to awaken our empathy.
Similarities with Haulout
Using “close reading” of the short films that were the most compelling at the Berlinale IFF, I was able to uncover some similarities and some of the reasons for my own fascination. Apart from the specific similarities in the text already mentioned (surprise, horror scene enhancing the subjective experience of the main character), we can also talk about the slow tempo, the gradual and sometimes frustrating control of information or documentary scenes (e.g., objectively recorded piano compositions). However, all of this goes to the central point of both films – to the main character and, above all, to allow for focused immersion in their situation.
In Haulout, it is a more primary deep dive that revolves around universally shared experiences (isolation, basic human needs), while Sunday Morning works the other way around. We have to read into it a lot more, search for stories behind the images and build a picture of Gabriela’s world from vague mental stimuli. As a reward for our intense focus on one protagonist, we also receive strong emotions, either directly or through our empathy. For their ability to convey emotions and touch viewers, I see both films as short epics.