In his seminal guide to science-fiction literature, the late editor and publisher David G. Hartwell writes: “Science fiction has flowered and prospered in our troubled and fast-evolving century in part because it alone among contemporary prose literatures consistently deals with the big questions: What are we here for? Where are we going? How much worse can things get? Modern readers, especially the young, no longer believe in or necessarily desire a stable universe. They are anxious about the present.”
His words could very well apply to any televised or filmic representation of the genre.
The best science-fiction movies and television shows—Planet of the Apes, the original Star Trek series and its direct descendants, Babylon 5, Gattaca—ask the eternal question of “what if?” by extrapolating from our present circumstances and imagining what could be the natural or unnatural consequences of today’s actions.
In that regard, Brazilian filmmaker Iuli Gerbase’s feature film debut The Pink Cloud (A Nuvem Rosa) is a prime example of what the genre is still capable of achieving as a narrative tool. Written in 2017, shot in 2019, and now theatrically released after making the festival rounds last year, The Pink Cloud, with its backdrop of a worldwide crisis that forces everyone into lockdown and isolation, feels terribly prescient. Reality, however, has pretty much trumped Gerbase’s tale, considering how Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has mishandled the pandemic, the predominant role that misinformation—spread through the same technology her characters and we depend upon for just about everything—has played in worsening the crisis, and the pre-existing inequalities exacerbated by it.
Still, when it comes to visual and narrative representations of the times we live in, The Pink Cloud will stand alongside The Year of the Everlasting Storm and the miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven (currently streaming on HBO Max) as a fundamental text.
A woman walking her dog by the beach somewhere in Brazil is enveloped by a pink mist and within seconds falls dead to the ground. In an apartment nearby, Giovana (Renata de Lélis), a web designer, and her one-night stand Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), wake up to a pink sky and a voice over a loudspeaker ordering citizens to lock their windows and remains indoors wherever they happen to be at the moment: their own homes, at a friend’s place, inside a supermarket or other business, even a TV studio. The cloud is toxic and proves deadly within 10 seconds of making contact.
Is this meteorological phenomenon a byproduct of global warning? Is its toxicity limited only to humans—the dog clearly survives contact? Gerbase leaves these tantalizing questions unanswered as she is far more interested in the impact such imposed isolation has on individuals and their ability to cope and adapt.
Forced to live together without hardly knowing each other, Giovana and Yago try to make the best of a rather difficult situation with no apparent end in sight. Giovana wonders what will happen to homeless people, and both think the cloud will be gone by winter—sound familiar? Streaming services, how-to videos, and virtual chats are their only connection to the rest of the world. A series of circular pans show how this odd couple learn to do yoga and fix the dishwasher by watching such videos—how to make sourdough bread, anyone?—to finally showing them both slumped on the sofa, drinking beer, passively watching.
As food runs out, the government begins to deliver this and other essentials through drones and tubes attached to the residents’ windows. We then get a sense of how the world is falling apart for Giovana’s and Yago’s relatives. Stuck at a friend’s house where she was staying for a sleepover, Giovana’s sister Júlia (Helena Becker) has to put up with the authoritarian rule of her friend’s father. Giovana’s best friend Sara (Kaya Rodrigues), alone in her apartment after her husband was trapped by the cloud in the bakery he owned, begins to grow desperate—virtual calls are not enough for this incredibly sociable woman. Yago’s father (Girley Brasil Paes) is suffering from dementia and being tended to by a male nurse whom he wants to kill. Giovana watches a man jump out to his death from his apartment after writing on his window This cloud won’t kill me.
Early on, Giovana compares their situation to an arranged marriage where the couple barely knows each other but, with the passage of time, becomes used to their arrangement and even fall in love. You never feel the passage of time in the film though. It stands still for them just like it did for so many of us during lockdown. Suddenly we see a broadcast of the first anniversary of the Pink Cloud’s appearance and, after arguing about the need to bear and raise children—Yago wants them, Giovana doesn’t—we are suddenly, in one simple cut, presented with a pregnant Giovana who gives birth, with the assistance of a virtual gynecologist, to a baby boy.
With the feeling of time standing still comes, at least for Yago and his son who never knew a world outside of the confinement imposed by the Pink Cloud, a sense that this is how things will be from now on—“the new normal,” as is said in our real world. Better to embrace and accept this new world even when it ends up being as repressive and patriarchal as the old one. The irrepressible, freedom-loving Giovana finds refuge from this new normal on the virtual reality headset Yago and their son gave her for her birthday, but even that pleasure is fleeting.
The best science fiction doesn’t provide easy answers to the questions it asks, but only presents scenarios that raise even more questions, while inviting the reader or audience to come up with questions and scenarios of their own—to think, to ponder and, if you have the will and disposition, to act. The idea of finding yourself locked down in place, no matter what that place may be, is full of possibilities, and Gerbase teases some of them throughout the film, with a news report of a fight breaking out between the different tribes that have staked out their territories inside the supermarket they now call home, for example, and Yago questioning the image’s veracity. There is even a brief moment of hope that is quickly dashed just as the Omicron variant did our own hopes of returning to something resembling normalcy.
But as you become invested in this couple’s claustrophobic life, you can’t help but wonder about the world outside. The lights go out in their apartment only to return hours later—how was it fixed? Do electric workers—or any first responders, for that matter—venture out in hazmat suits to fix such issues? And why do we hardly hear from scientists or government officials? And those TV newscasters: are they wearing the same wardrobe day after day, month after month? We are so used to the genre’s world-building aspect that we will inevitably nitpick at a film like this.
But the personal is political, after all. And by keeping the story so focused on this couple, Gerbase has delivered an unnerving and disquieting view of the times in which we live.
The Pink Cloud is currently playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City and opens on January 24 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, California. It will be released on Digital/VOD March 1st. For additional theaters, visit the film’s official webpage.
Featured image courtesy of Prana Filmes