The far-right has now aggressively infiltrated the politics of countless nations, developed and otherwise, advocating malicious rhetoric that targets vulnerable groups, preaches ethnocentrism, and weaponizes religion. Outside of what happened in the United States in 2016, last year’s presidential election in Brazil, which crowned a candidate holding such extreme views, is a testament to the harmful powers of alarmist populism.
Although produced prior to the recent rise of these traditionalist forces in the country, Brazilian animated feature “Tito and the Birds” is a shrewd response to bigotry, packaged as a spooky adventure achieved through the integration of artisanal and digital techniques. The outcome is a stylistically singular treasure with tonal and aesthetic hints of Laika’s horror-inspired “ParaNorman” and the animated Van Gogh biopic “Loving Vincent.”
São Paulo native Gustavo Steinberg, the creative commander propelling the entire operation, co-directed the film with animators Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto. Steinberg made his feature debut with the anti-corruption satire “End of the Line” in 2008. Steinberg also co-wrote the screenplay with Eduardo Benaim, whose ideological sensibilities, based on his previous work, match the rest of the progressively minded team.
Expressive strokes of tangible oil paint shape the alluring world of Tito (voiced by Pedro Henrique), a hoodie-clad kid who idolizes his father, Dr. Rufus (Matheus Nachtergaele), an inventor inching closer to his definitive gadget: a machine that would enable him to communicate with pigeons — birds he considers to be of utmost significance given their abilities as messengers. In the wake of a failed test that endangered Tito’s life, Rufus leaves home at his wife Rosa’s demand.
Thrust into a high-stakes mission when a mystifying illness known as “The Outbreak” takes over town, Tito, with his friends Buiú and Sarah and their arrogant and wealthy schoolmate Teo, must recreate Rufus’ device to understand his winged allies, as they are instrumental to eradicating the contagious ailment that feeds off anxiety and renders victims immobile.
Steinberg employs the physical symptoms of the fictional illness to illustrate the paralyzing effects of being afraid of others. Infection occurs when an individual makes visual contact with someone else already stricken with fear. Paralyzing terror devolves into limbs becoming shorter until the affected person is transformed into a rock-like entity unable to move or speak. This graphic portrayal of how prejudice and mistrust corrode one’s capacity for empathy and connection is the film’s timeliest and most poignant message.
Introduced as Tito’s best friend since early childhood and his nanny’s son, Buiú is a crucial character in relation to the narrative’s concerns regarding discrimination. Exhibiting naturally bulging eyes (a characteristic attributed only to those infected), the mostly silent boy doesn’t go to the same school Tito and Sarah do (likely for financial reasons) and is denied entrance to Teo’s mansion.
Such treatment and lack of access denotes the insidious nature of classism, and how it’s often intertwined with racism in Latin America. Steinberg and team, however, do present a myriad of skin tones and traits among all characters on screen to address this, even in a minor way, and to display quietly a more inclusive image of Brazil. Fortunately, Buiú also challenges assumptions and proves to be an invaluably skilled hacker and, eventually, the prime motivation for Tito and his gang to persevere.
On the opposite front of the discourse about intolerance and divisiveness is TV personality Alaor Souza (Mateus Solano), the Trumpian antagonist (and Teo’s father) whose poisonous notions about a reality in disarray are delivered straight into people’s homes. A scaremonger if there ever was one, Alaor profits off of instability by creating panic amongst the population and then persuading the most privileged ones to buy real estate inside his Dome Garden, a highly secure, impenetrable community.
Gorgeously eerie throughout, the extraordinary visual palette of “Tito and the Birds” consists of hand-painted backgrounds enhanced with software brushes and later fused with the digitally drawn 2D characters. Flaunting its artistry through every one of its 73 minutes, the project bears the imprint of the processes that contributed to its making and design.
Interestingly, “Tito” echoes another traditionally confected feature from Brazil, Alê Abreu’s Oscar-nominated “Boy and the World,” not only in its mixed-media origins but also, more notably, in its socially conscious themes. Abreu’s dialogue-free picture tackled deforestation and oppression in a similarly subtle yet compelling manner. Linking these internationally recognized productions further is the fact that musicians Gustavo Kurlat and Ruben Feffer composed both of their distinct scores, with their work on “Tito” being more darker and more atmospheric.
While Brazil currently finds itself caught up in hate speech and discrimination at the highest level, the lessons included here are applicable everywhere and offer a definite sense of urgency. “Tito and the Birds” is extraordinary proof that universality comes from specificity. Sometimes there is nothing more globally relevant than a hand-crafted Portuguese-language animated indie.