Part mystery, part passionate romance, Aly Muritiba’s queer drama Private Desert is striking in the unexpected avenues its narrative takes, as well as the surprising cinematography that immerses the viewer in its balmy Brazilian locale.

A favorite at last year’s Venice Film Festival and Brazil’s official submission to the 94th Academy Awards, the story follows a police officer placed on leave who searches for his online love, a genderfluid blue-collar worker who lives as her male birth identity by day, when she disappears.

As the film arrives in the U.S., I had the opportunity to speak with Muritiba about the intense physicality of the film, his character’s backstories, the toxic masculinity of Brazil, crafting a beautiful love story, the bifurcated narrative, and much more.

The Film Stage: There’s an intense physicality to the film, both in how your camera frames actors and in the blocking of scenes. Can you talk about the desire to make audiences feel so connected with the characters, in this sense?

Aly Muritiba: I wanted to make a sensual movie that would allow the audience to feel the character’s desires in their own bodies. This is a movie about love, but it’s also pretty sexy. That’s why the camera gets closer to the characters little by little: we want the audience to feel, in their own skin, the same thing the characters feel when they touch, when they kiss.

What was your process in developing the backstory of Daniel’s character, a teacher at a police academy who has a violent incident? We often see these stories from an outsider’s perspective, so to make him the protagonist was a bracing choice.

I usually write a whole biography for my characters. This backstory comes into play several times when we are writing the script; it informs how characters act, talk, and think. In Daniel’s case, it was a little easier because I’m very familiar with his universe since I worked for 7 years as a prison guard and dealt with policemen on a daily basis.

Can you talk about the bifurcated structure of the narrative and your decision to switch gears and flip perspectives halfway through?

This is something I had already experimented with in my previous film, Rust (2018), and I was able to further develop in Private Desert. Switching protagonists mid-movie is very risky because we risk losing the audience on the way. But since I had a second character that was as fascinating as the first, I was very certain the risk was worth it.

Akin to another Brazilian film last year, Madalena, Private Desert is a microcosm of larger issues in Brazil of LGBTQ+ people being targeted and discriminated against. Can you talk about how you wanted to shine a light on this issue and how you hope it can provide empathy?

Through Sara/Robson’s journey we get a glimpse of what the life of a small-town Brazilian boy from a conservative religious family is like. In introducing this complex character full of desires and dreams, we want to talk about prejudice and pain, but we also want to focus on hope and potential. Private Desert starts as a drama about toxic masculinity in Brazil, but ends with a beautiful love song, full of possibilities—”Forever’s gonna start tonight.”

Your use of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is staggering in how it reframes our notions of the song as it relates to the longing in the film. Can you talk about selecting it?

“Total Eclipse of the Heart” was a part of my youth. It served as the score for many first kisses of an entire generation. When I was writing the screenplay I was looking for a song to be a theme for the main couple. One day my girlfriend suggested this song, and it was perfect.

Can you talk about your process with cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga? I was continually struck by how distinctive the visual language of the film was. Were there any references you watched in pre-production?

Luis is a master of his craft. He’s a scholar of both cinematography and Latin American film, but first and foremost he is a passionate artist who was always challenging me. During our prep we watched very few films, but we would often walk the streets of Juazeiro e Sobradinho (where Sara/Robson lives) and people-watch. It was our true inspiration.

I love how you settle into the story and meet Daniel before the journey truly begins and the opening credits arrive. Can you discuss the decision to place these credits after the first act, and what sensation you were hoping it gave the viewer?

This came about in the writing. One day, looking over what we’ve written, I realized that the movie—the adventure—only started for Daniel when he leaves home to find Sara. Everything that comes before is a prologue, however long. We establish the ordinary place from where we want to escape to go on an adventure.

With the film now arriving in the United States almost a year after its premiere, what have you learned most about the film on its journey that you didn’t expect when making it? What do you hope U.S. audiences will take away from it?

After taking the movie all over the world for a year, I realized how hungry the audience was for a beautiful love story that would make them smile. This is what I hope the American audience experiences.

Private Desert is now playing at NYC’s Quad Cinema and opens at LA’s Laemmle Theatres on September 9 before expanding.

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