FILM STILL

Brasilia is a planned city. Constructed in the late 1950s as part of a Brazilian government plan to make a capital city that was more central than former capital Rio de Janeiro, the city was intended to be a modern architectural utopia, all curved walls and triangles and blindingly white monuments hovering in the cityscape like UFOs.

Like all planned utopias, Brasilia failed to actually accommodate the messiness of human life—today, hundreds of thousands of people are bussed in and out of the metropolis every day to care for its antiseptic architecture, but they cannot afford to actually live among the dominating structures. As the nameless voiceover in the documentary A Machine to Live In puts it: “What is architecture if not boundaries?”

These are the sorts of ruminations you’ll hear in Machine, part of this year’s Portland International Film Festival lineup, directed by Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke. A sort of visual essay, the film pairs this voiceover with absorbing, Kubrik-esque shots of Brasilia’s architecture—often filmed from below, heightening the buildings’ menacing and mysterious nature. Eventually, the film links Brasilia’s modernist behemoths with cultist structures found in the Brazilian hinterlands, using quotes from prominent Brazilians like writer Clarice Lispector and cult leader Tia Neiva to further the comparisons.

If all of this sounds weird and esoteric to you, you aren’t wrong. The film drops philosophical and poetic observations at a rate that always left me feeling one step behind, and I had to pause it several times to Google a person or concept mentioned. But the sheer beauty of the cinematography, and the intoxicatingly mind-stretching nature of its ideas, saves Machine from being impenetrable. Even if you miss a few references, you’ll want to keep watching to see where it goes next.

In fact, I have to admire Machine for being an unabashedly artistic documentary that refuses to explain itself. There’s been a recent spate of hit documentaries that hold the viewer’s hand while painstakingly recounting detail after detail of some cultural event in order to keep their attention—you can think of this as the Netflix-ification of documentaries. There’s value in these journalistic films, but in watching the genre-bending, trippy Machine, I was grateful that weirdness and wonder weren’t forfeited for watchability’s sake.

Brasilia is a city constructed for a utopian future that never quite arrived. Because of that, A Machine to Live In theorizes, Brasilia’s inhabitants are stuck in the dreams of its planners. “When you’re trapped in the dream of the other,” the voiceover warns before the credits roll, “you’re fucked.”

That’s probably true. But I didn’t mind spending an hour and a half inside the dreamy, improbable architecture tour that is A Machine to Live In.


Here's how you can stream A Machine to Live In as part of the Portland International Film Festival.