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Nova Lituania (2019)
On Lebensraum - this time by the invaded ones
Lithuania, late 1930s. As the heavy atmosphere in Europe forecasts the inevitable war, Geography scholar and researcher Feliksas Gruodis tries to contact big-wigs in politics and the press to tell them of his radical, inventive plan: to move Lithuania's 2,8 million population to Madagascar and build up a "back-up" ("Nova Lituania") country, in the ever more likely case the real Lithuania is invaded.
At home, things are equally tense: Feliksas's childless marriage is already falling apart, and now his cold, bitter wife brings in her tyrannical mother to live with them. As Feliksas's mother-in-law imperviously takes up literal and symbolic territory, he is forced to let go of his last bits of authority and move his precious African memorabilia to his jammed working place. Public and private oppression reinforces the flip side of the "Lebensraum" (vital space) concept, this time through the eyes of the invaded ones.
Karolis Kaupinis's directing debut is VERY impressive: excellent acting all around, gorgeous b&w cinematography and lighting, great job by the art direction and costume teams.
Kaupinis has a good ear for dialog as well: all the characters in Feliksas's home are build with economic precision and palpable tension. All the scenes between the President and the Prime Minister are beautifully written and performed. And the brief scene of a young lieutenant confronting the (now ex-) Prime Minister is thrillingly powerful.
However, there's a major rub in the structure: the potentially very interesting Prime-Minister character, who seems at first to be the protagonist until Feliksas takes over, sadly fades away into shapelessness and unimportance. Some of the scenes of the growing bond between them feel forced and ultimately pointless, such as the long sequence with the car on the beach.
I would also argue that Kaupinis's use of anachronistic elements in this very careful historical reconstitution don't always work. There is, for example, a long, crucial scene of dialog between Feliksas and the Prime Minister in a restaurant, to the background track of Los Záfiros 1960s haunting rendition of "Black Orpheus"'s Manhã de Carnaval/Canção de Orfeu. I mean, who can listen to any dialog, however well written, with Ignácio Elejalde's incomparable voice singing one of the most beautiful melodies ever written? Our ears are simply abducted away. I spent the whole scene thinking: is Feliksas a modern Orpheus and the Prime Minister his Eurydice or is it the other way around? Very distracting.
Anyway, these are minor and arguable issues: "Nova Lituania" is certainly worth your time and attention. There is real talent at play here, both behind and in front of the camera.
Fists in the Pocket
Silent, introverted, absent-minded 14 year-old Luca is about to radically change his quiet life as a countryside boy as he enrolls in a traditional Italian catering school, which has obviously seen better days but still keeps up strict discipline and ancien-régime etiquette, such as measuring the exact length of space between chairs around a table, the centimeters allowed for growing sideburns, or the correct way to wipe the inside of a glass (clockwise!).
Davide Maldi, director and cameraman, centers his slow-paced documentary completely on Luca and his internal battle against boredom, conformity and arbitrary discipline. Luca's mind is far away in classes, be it French, Law or how to perfectly fold a table cloth or a napkin. As his grades and performance worsen, the confrontation with his teachers is inevitable: will Luca bend his will?
Though passive-aggressive Luca is the opposite in temperament from Lou Castel's explosive, fiery character in Marco Bellocchio's "Fists in the Pocket", there's something equally rebellious about his looks and soul (hence the title of my review). The inquisitive brow, defiant grin and tense body reminded me of Castel, as well as Luca's habit of testing the limits of those in power and -- you guessed it -- keeping his tight fist hiding in the pocket of his perfectly pressed trousers (an absolute nay-nay posture, as we learn along).
In a broader context, the film is also about the near absurdist attempt to preserve old, aristocratic, terribly démodé traditions in a country badly damaged by economic problems, unemployment, political cataclysms and the apparently insoluble regional and class conflicts that Italian films have been telling us about for the last 80 years.
While the subject is original, curious and attractive, and Maldi is himself a young observant with a very keen eye, Luca's slowly folding inside himself makes the film drag in bits -- surprisingly not in the unbelievable disciplinarian routines but in the long scenes of Luca in class or by himself in the woods. Minus some 15 or 20 minutes, "The Young Observant" would have been really good.
Filmed by Varda at the height of Nouvelle Vague's very short period of success with both critics and audiences, this short is a black and white silent comedy -- incorporated, in a slightly different version, in Varda's first feature "Cléo de 5 à 7" (1962) -- whose major interest today is the presence of a young Jean-Luc Godard (post-Breathless) as the protagonist. Emulating Buster Keaton's deadpan face and Harold Lloyd's fancy-clothed bespectacled romantic, Godard loves, disputes and saves his lovely fiancée, played by his then wife and muse Anna Karina (in a blond wig), and discovers that his somber vision of people and the world may very well be caused by his constant use of...dark-lensed glasses!
Varda tells us in her DVD introduction to this short that she wanted to show her friend Godard's beautiful, sad Buster Keaton eyes, always hidden behind his thick shades in everyday life. And she reveals to us what we've always suspected about JLG: that coupled with that genius wit, robotic voice and viperous lisping tongue there was a pair of sensitive, sad, soulful eyes. The short feels today like a heart-warming photograph of complex people allowing themselves to be slaphappy for a moment (even Eddie Constantine smiles!) and proves Varda's very special talent for capturing people's warmth and life-affirming vocation.
Unusual Marker stuff
Unlike most of Chris Marker's films, "Junkopia" has absolutely no dialog or voice-over text. We just see images of strange, weather-beaten sculptures randomly gathered on a windy seashore, reminiscent of familiar animals and objects, and which we gradually perceive to be made of common debris that were washed ashore in Emeryville beach, in the San Francisco area (where Marker was filming the "Vertigo" episode in "Sans Soleil"). The electronic music -- mixing radio waves, Arielle Dombasle's singing voice and synthesizers -- only adds to the eerie, otherworldly feeling, as if those figures belonged to a post-hecatomb Easter Island. It surely deserves to be seen (it's only 6 minutes long) and is available online at the very interesting ubu.com site.
Vive la baleine (1972)
Marker and the whales
Chris Marker's usual mix of "borrowed" pieces of different film textures (film, video, animation, photographs, paintings) serves as a poetic, passionate and very sound warning against the widespread, business-like, matter-of-fact killing of whales around the world. If today its message may sound obvious to most of us -- almost everybody is aware of the danger of whale extinction, though of course there are still killings out there -- it can still be enlightening as to the appalling methods of whale-hunting worldwide through the ages, as well as the very special place that this big cetacean has occupied in human mythology, history, economics and art, the "challenge" of little men killing the biggest animals on the planet, and making the mo$t of it.
The quality of the images vary tremendously, and for sure there are scenes that will make you cringe with horror (not unlike Geroges Franju's 1949 one-day-in-a-slaughterhouse "Le Sang des Bêtes"). Marker's incomparable talent for weaving his commentary with creative insight, historical research, wit, irony and common sense elevates this short film above the routine ecological documentary.
Le souvenir d'un avenir (2001)
Memories of a Future
Cinema's greatest essayist-artist Chris Marker pays homage to French photographer Denise Bellon (1902-1999) by making an incredibly beautiful, insightful montage of her photos of the 1930s and 1940s to show how the "great illusion" of post-WWI European peace gradually deteriorated into the horrors of WWII. Co-directed by Bellon's filmmaker daughter Yannick, "Le Souvenir d'un Avenir" combines Bellon's breathtaking images, Marker's nec plus ultra insightful/knowledgeable/poetic/ironic commentary (narrated by Pierre Arditi in the French version and by Alexandra Stewart in the English version), and a montage that can only be compared to great music.
Linked to the Surrealist movement and the legendary generation of photographers who worked (as she did) for the Alliance Photo Agency, Bellon showed through her images the signs of the ponderous, eerie calm preceding the big storm. Marker ingeniously reveals the links between apparently "innocent" images and the appalling realities that lay underneath -- the 1930s cult of calisthenics and physical health that indicated the Nazi (and Scandinavian, let's not forget it) theories of racial superiority and the Soviet cult of the strong proletariat; the formal and ideological clash between French and Soviet art at the Paris' World Fair of 1937; her photo of a gypsy bride on the cover of a 1939 Paris Match issue that also (and incredibly) included excerpts of "Mein Kampf" in which Hitler called gypsies and other "low" ethnicities "half-simian".
Like Marker throughout his own career, Bellon showed exceptional sensibility, intuitiveness and intelligence in being at dangerous spots in critical times: one moment she's in the then French colonies of Morocco and Tunisia, photographing the slave-like training of natives as future war troopers (the expendables ones) and the bordellos recruiting Tunisian women for the "repos" of the French military; then, she's at the German maneuvers in Finland that experimented with the heavy weaponry and war strategies soon to ensue; then she's at the Aran Valley in Spain, documenting the little-known, ill-fated uprising by Spanish Republicans against dictator Franco; then, in Paris, documenting the influx of French "ploucs" that initiated the policy of using (and abusing) low-class and immigrant labor force.
But "Le Souvenir d'un Avenir" is not a film-à-thèse: its political, cultural and sociological insights are just as historically sound as they are the product of Marker's superior and very personal sensibility and vision. It's also very moving, as there are many pictures of Bellon's two daughters (filmmaker Yannick and actress Loleh) in various phases of childhood and adolescence, against the changing backdrop of post-war France.
Made when he was at the age of 80(!), Marker's masterful art of transforming historical research into revelatory interpretation using images, words and sounds shows no signs of fatigue, and "Le Souvenir d'un Avenir" is the undebatable proof: it's probably his best since the masterpiece "Sans Soleil".
A Casa de Alice (2007)
Overrated investigation on the middle-class has some fine acting
"A Casa de Alice", the first fiction feature film by docu-maker Chico Teixeira, wouldn't be far from your regular soap opera if not for the way the camera investigates the characters -- instead of concentrating on facial expressions and dialog, it's the body language that interests Teixeira and that ultimately gives us the insight on the various characters (not unlike Susanne Bier's camera).
There's nothing about the story/plot/characters that you haven't seen before, except maybe that ALL the characters are ambiguous: Alice and her husband have affairs on the side; Alice's old mother has ailing eyesight but is the only one who sees every sordid thing that's going about; Alice's oldest son, Edinho, is a G.I. who's a male prostitute in his spare time; the middle son, Lucas, is granny's favorite but also a petty thief (that includes stealing from granny); angel-faced Junior, the youngest son, knows how to get the things he wants by being calculatedly adorable and cute. The ambiguity also applies to the supporting characters, like innocent-looking devilish neighbor Thais, or Alice's soft-talk lover Nilson.
There's serious misery-index in the film: everyone's frustrated and unhappy and in love with people who don't love them back. The single exception -- the one requited love -- is the urgent, possessive, alternately delicate and passionate bond (it's not clear whether actual intercourse is involved, though there are strong suggestions) between brothers Edinho and Junior. The camera lingers three or four extra beats on their mutual gazing and caresses and obvious horniness for each other -- so much so that their relationship nearly takes over the film.
The acting is fine all around, and Carla Ribas goes all the way in her bravura performance (she has won an array of awards for it), though she isn't quite convincing in the physique du role department: we're always aware she obviously doesn't come from the same world as Alice -- her fine skin, her voice, her accent belong to a higher social class. Theatrical legend Berta Zemel, as the elderly mother, shows all her skill in an almost silent part. But the finest, most thrilling acting comes from the three boys (all of them first-timers) who play the sons and nail their shadowy characters with perfection, with not one false note: they're the main reason to see "Alice".
The final third and the denouement are impossibly contrived (I don't want to enter spoiler territory); in such a realistic slice-of-life piece, it comes as a real disappointment. Anyway, the film may serve as a curio for non-Brazilian audiences who wrongly identify Brazilian films solely with favelas, drugs or gory violence -- Brazilian films about the struggles, dreams and frustrations of the middle classes are a century-long tradition and a big part of Brazilian cinema. Connoisseurs will certainly recall many that have more strength, insight and depth than this intermittently interesting, slow, grim, overrated and undeniably finely-acted "A Casa de Alice".
Linha de Passe (2008)
Walter Salles's most mature, satisfying film
Walter Salles's first Brazilian feature film since "Abril Despedaçado/Behind the Sun" (2001), "Linha de Passe" -- in which he shares direction credit with Daniela Thomas for the seventh time -- is a contemporary neo-realist essay that confirms Salles's humanist concerns. In these our times of cynicism, nihilism or downright pessimism, Salles's unbending belief in compassion, resilience and man's intrinsic goodness might seem naive or filled with Christian piety. But he's no preaching Pollyanna: he looks up to the great humanist filmmakers (Renoir and Rossellini on top) yet he never compromises in cheap schmaltz, happy-go-lucky naiveté or Hollywoodized feel-good endings.
Inspired by the insightful TV documentaries co-directed by Walter's younger brother João Moreira Salles, "Futebol" (1998 - revealing some of the shady business/management practices in Brazilian professional soccer) and "Santa Cruz" (2000 - about the sweeping spread of Protestant cults in Brazil, especially among the poor), "Linha de Passe" takes the structure from Visconti's "Rocco and his Brothers" -- a mother raising four sons striving for dignity and a better life in a big, oppressive city -- and transposes it to an ugly, lumpen neighborhood (Cidade Líder) in the outskirts of São Paulo.
The family is poor, not destitute: they belong to the working-class that's near-bottom but not quite. Forty-something house- cleaner Cleuza is pregnant with her fifth child (we never meet the fathers). Her four sons are teenagers Dinho, a gas station attendant who joins a Pentecostal cult in his search for purity of body and soul; sly Dênis, a motorcycle courier whose desperate need for money to help raise his baby son (he's separated from the boy's mother) and pay for his bike leads him to crime; closed-in Dario, who at 18 may already be too old to pursue his dream in professional soccer; and super-smart pre-teen Reginaldo, whose black skin makes him an outcast even in his own family, as he obsessively goes for bus rides in search of his unknown bus-driver father.
The plot, structure and dialog may seem occasionally déjà vu, and the screenplay (by co-director Thomas and TV-writer George Moura, with "City of God"'s Bráulio Mantovani's "collaboration") doesn't quite succeed in developing the five individual stories with equal creativity and strength (Dinho's thread is the best, Dênis's the most contrived). Clichés surface whenever middle- and high-class characters are involved. And, as usual with Salles, water symbolisms abound: the rain, the soul-cleansing shower scene with Dinho and Dario, a baptism in the lake, culminating with a maddeningly obvious clogged sink, symbolizing the "clogged" lives of the characters.
Despite all that, there's a LOT going for "Linha de Passe". The setting and locations are among the film's finest qualities: away from the over-explored favela environment and its usual combo of guns, drugs and violence, the film focuses on one often overlooked geographic and social landscape of Brazil's class structure. It's also a miracle of casting, from the right physiognomies (the five protagonists really look like they share DNAs) to the careful attention for accent-nailing, something very rare in Brazilian films (actors from different parts of Brazil speak with accents typical of São Paulo's periphery). Their performances are dazzling, especially when you consider that, excepting Vinícius de Oliveira (Dario), they're all feature film first-timers. Sandra Corveloni, surprise winner of 2008 Cannes Best Actress Award for her role, is the spine of the film as the weather-beaten, end-of- the-rope mother trying to hold her crumbling family together. The four boys are impressive, but José Geraldo Rodrigues is simply stunning as soul-searching Dinho: he's a seriously talented actor (it's also the best, richest role).
Salles's tone is, as usual, melancholy but never maudlin; he's too classy to stoop to audience manipulation. He's found in D.P. Mauro Pinheiro ("Cinema Aspirinas e Urubus") the ideal cameraman for this film, away from the beautifying images that compromised parts of his other films -- the imagery here is dry, desolate, akin to some of the best recent South American movies by Lucrécia Martel, Pablo Trapero or Pablo Stoll. The emotional power comes out of staring at "real" people in real locations, in the best neo-realist tradition (the scenes at the soccer stadium are especially compelling). The carefully planned editing fully succeeds in keeping the 5 stories alive and interconnecting in fine rhythm. Gustavo Santaolalla's spellbinding, deceptively simple music proves once again that he -- more than any other contemporary film composer -- owns the secret key to open hearts and minds without ever sounding obtrusive, overblown or mawkish.
"Linha de Passe" wisely and democratically offers "open" denouements for each character's thread: it's OUR job to come up with the conclusions, and they'll depend on our (in)ability to believe there's still light at the end of the tunnel (for some of the characters, at least). But Salles+Thomas's affirmative position comes clearly in the shape of the closing credits' song: the classic samba "Juízo Final" by Nelson Cavaquinho ("The sun will shine once more/ Light will reach the hearts/ The seed of evil will burn out"). It's the same song that we heard at the closing credits of Jorge Durán's moving humanist manifesto "Proibido Proibir" (2007). It's no "coincidence": the song is there, as it was in Durán's film, because -- if we're ANY human -- we leave the theater feeling that, unlike the tons of junk movies which desensitize us in the name of "entertainment", we've just seen a film that ACTUALLY has urgent, important things to say. And says it sensitively, insightfully, poignantly.
Os Desafinados (2008)
Out of tune alright - and not just slightly
"Os Desafinados" is a long-cherished personal project from experienced director Walter Lima Jr (he began making films in 1965) and his first film in seven years -- his last was the awful "Um Crime Nobre", with Ornella Muti. "Desafinados" is so obviously a labor of love that its almost complete failure only makes our hearts sink deeper: it's hesitating, confusing, under- achieved and schmaltzy. And interminable -- 139 minutes of relentless tedium.
The title derives from Antonio Carlos Jobim+Newton Mendonça's landmark song "Desafinado" (a.k.a. "Slightly Out of Tune"), and it's a fantasy tribute to the generation of young Brazilian musicians who, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, invented a new, cool, sexy musical style -- the bossa nova -- that spread like an epidemic and still remains influential around the globe. The film is also an "inside" mea-culpa piece about the Cinema Novo generation, of which Lima was an active but not quite top-talented member. Far from being insightful (for the older generation) and revealing (for the younger), "Desafinados" just seems sloppy, muddled and lifeless.
To begin with, there are serious problems with the script. The film is a sketch collage of factual events, personal memories and notorious anecdotes with plain fiction, but everything is dead, like old jokes told by someone devitalized. There are signs of major re-cutting, with probably many scenes left out (especially in the first third) because the story moves by bumpy jumps -- but it's still endlessly long. Composite and imagined characters share a contrived co-existence. The love triangle between the characters of Rodrigo Santoro, Cláudia Abreu and Alessandra Negrini never rings true, because Negrini's character barely exists to begin with, and we can never believe ANYONE would dump gorgeous, sophisticated Abreu to go back to plain hometown girl Negrini.
Worse, there's no excuse that Lima used the tragic real fate of bossa nova pianist Tenório Jr -- who, during a 1976 tour in Buenos Aires with Vinicius de Moraes was abducted and probably assassinated under still mysterious circumstances by the Argentinian military regime; his body's still missing -- in a such a superficial, casual way. The film suddenly alters its tone from light romantic musical comedy to political tragedy but the result is phoniness. To top it all, the discombobulated denouement with Santoro in a double role is SO far-fetched and maudlin that you'll have to revise your list of top-awful film finales.
Then, there are BIG casting problems. In a film obviously made with an eye on the international market, there are supporting actors playing U.S., Argentinian and French nationals with NOT ONE of them nailing his accent right. The cast is a motley crew of non-acting musicians (Jair Oliveira, the bassist, and André Moraes, the drummer) and non-musician actors struggling to play their instruments for real, with very distracting results: Santoro's spider-like, stiff hands could never belong to a fine pianist, André Paes Leme's awkward fingers lack the agility and grace of a real guitarist's. Cláudia Abreu plays a flutist/singer and is dubbed on both counts (except when she and Santoro wreck Pixinguinha's classic "Carinhoso" with their non-singer voices). Her dubbed singing voice (by Lima's real-life daughter Branca Lima) sounds mismatched and emotionally flat. At least we're lucky to be stuck with such gorgeous-looking stars as Santoro and Abreu -- she, especially, looks stunning. But we once AGAIN have to endure omnipresent Selton Mello's maddening ad lib routines at its most irritating (and he's a master at that) in the portrait of the Cinema Novo filmmaker who's a fraud (innuendos galore).
Of course, with Jobim, Mendonça et al, one can't complain about the music -- or can one? Many classic Brazilian songs are there, once AGAIN ("Desafinado", "Carinhoso", "Insensatez", "Copacabana", "Meditação" etc), and musical director Wagner Tiso's re-vamping of those songs are unimaginative and bureaucratic, and on occasion terribly contrived (the jazz club scene with the mix of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" and Jobim's "Só Danço Samba"). The two new songs are lackluster: Wagner Tiso's pastiche of a bossa nova and Jair de Oliveira's unremarkable pop-samba-soul. There's a lot of locations (Rio, Niterói, New York City, Buenos Aires) and with experienced Pedro Farkas as D.P., the film looks pretty but déjà vu -- once AGAIN we're given the standard images of tourist spots (Copacabana, the Sugar Loaf, Manhattan, the Central Park, Nueve de Julio) and we're somehow supposed to look at Rio's present-day skyline and pretend we don't see the huge buildings that were built decades after the 1960s.
But, amid all that mess, for 5 minutes the film gloriously comes to life (hence the 3-star rating): when the sham filmmaker (Selton Mello) watches the rushes from his film- within-the-film "Bala Certeira", we in the audience immediately recognize the unmistakable, dazzling style of veteran Cinema Novo cameraman Dib Lutfi (who actually shot those scenes and, not coincidentally, also shot Lima's best film, "A Lira do Delírio"). It takes us from our torpor, makes us sit up and think we're finally seeing SOMETHING. We immediately recall Lutfi's electrifying, swirling, subversive, trend-setting hand-held camera-work in such Cinema Novo classics as "Terra em Transe", "Grande Cidade", "A Falecida", "O Desafio" (to name but a few). It makes us once again acknowledge Lutfi's huge, seminal contribution to Cinema Novo's aesthetics. Those few minutes by Lutfi are so much more powerful than everything else in "Os Desafinados" -- more powerful than dozens of visually bland contemporary Brazilian films -- that it may be worth watching "Desafinados" just for those few minutes...but then, on a second thought, better watch "Terra em Transe" or "A Falecida" instead, any day.
As an admirer of Saramago's masterpiece and Fernando Meirelles's exciting talent, I went to see "Blindness" with a pure heart but modest expectations; we all know how movie adaptations of great literature can be disappointing. But I wasn't prepared for the formal and philosophical nada that is "Blindness" -- it could very well be entitled "Blandness" instead.
The problems start from the opening credits: after the names of a dozen international production companies comes the hype tag "A Very Independent Production". Following this tongue-in-cheek "manifesto", the opening scene -- of the first man turning blind inside his car -- belies it all: it looks alarmingly like an ad for the new Fiat Punto (Fiat is one of the film's backers). It's a shameless piece of merchandise placement that immediately distracts you from what's supposed to be a harrowing scene; you pay attention to the car, not the man (excruciatingly played by Yusuke Iseya, in the film's worst performance).
The "very independent production" has more than a share of compromises, including the terribly contrived Japanese couple, who seem to belong to another film, and who are there to satisfy the Japanese co-producers and market. Or the timid, squeezed-in "action" flashes (cars crashing, planes exploding) to satisfy "action" lovers (NOT the public for "Blindness"). Or the debatable decision to film in English an author who brought new heights to Portuguese-language prose, in order to employ American stars and accommodate the international market.
Worst of all, we know now that Meirelles decided to re-cut the film six times since Cannes, after test audiences were "disgusted" with "graphic" scenes. Now, how can you keep your vision (oops) trying to please everybody? Can't. The film never finds a tone, wavering between the novel's apocalyptic, sarcastic allegory of society's prejudices, cruelty, ridicule and flawed power systems, and clumsy attempts to insert sci-fi thriller touches and invest on "plot". Well, Saramago's novel is a masterpiece NOT because of the plot but for the exquisite prose and caustic politico-philosophical insights.
It would be easy to blame the film's failure solely on Don McKellar's schematic adaptation that resembles a first draft, riddled with bad dialog and pedestrian ideas, plus a narrator (Danny Glover's character) that confusingly comes in halfway into the film. But the problems are all around: César Charlone's visual gimmicks soon get tiresome (the blurring "white blindness" ultimately drains the film of all life; it takes away the visual as well as the emotional edge); Marco Antonio Guimarães's music is abysmally bland; Daniel Rezende (the superb editor of "City of God") never finds a compelling rhythm, alternating chopped scenes with unnecessary longueurs (e.g.the embarrassing "cute dog" sequence). Art director Tulé Peak nails the claustrophobic squalor of the quarantine facility, but the garbage-filled streets often look suspiciously composed.
The actors seem lost, and that's a shock considering Meirelles's former films (remember how "City of God" had all-around brilliant performances?). Though they're supposed to play stereotypes (doctor, wife, whore, etc), they lack the transformations that are the crux of the novel -- how they work out their humanity in extreme mondo cane conditions. Mark Ruffalo, of whining voice and gutless face, looks like a boy who's lost his mommy rather than a dedicated ophthalmologist who slowly sinks into depression because he's impotent to help others or himself. Danny Glover plays a weather-beaten one-eyed old man incongruously sporting a supermegawhite Beverly Hills dental job that renders him impossible to believe in. The Japanese couple struggle with ludicrous scenes and dialog. Alice Braga is strong and sexy, but her character's complexities never surface, especially the nature of her relationships with the young boy and the doctor. Maury Chaykin's repellent character is underwritten and under-explored, and he turns to overacting for attention. Don McKellar's thief is an embarrassment and Sandra Oh's cameo is a waste.
Julianne Moore spends the first half hour repeating her role of the depressed/misunderstood wife in "The Hours" (cake-baking included). She fails to convey the bewilderment as to the "why" she's the only one to keep her eyesight, but she's good when she gets into action, though she could take a break from her de rigueur slow-motion crying scene, with that weird thing she does curling her mouth upside down (my friend said "Oh, no, it's coming!"). The best performance comes from Gael García Bernal playing the amoral, jackass opportunist: he makes the most unbelievable character (how about his rise to power? And gun? And ammo?) come to life -- in his scenes, we recognize Meirelles's naughty, un-PC sense of humor.
Above all, it's Meirelles (director, co-producer and responsible for the final cut) who disappoints; his customary assertive film-making flounders in hesitation here. Perhaps he felt the burden of trying to remain too faithful to the novel of a Nobel-winner who's still alive. Perhaps he felt crushed by the brooding material; Meirelles is best when he can let irony and humor show (as in "Domésticas" and "City of God"). Though some people complain about the "graphic" sex/rape scenes, they're actually almost bashful (at least after the re-cuts). The novel's corrosiveness asked for an uncompromising, irrepressible director of Buñuel's lineage -- if there was one -- to do it full justice (the characters' passiveness/impotence recall "Exterminating Angel"). In this our time, Béla Tarr could've made it gloriously bleak; Lars von Trier could've turned it into a shattering, sardonic horror, if he got back into his splendid "Kingdom"/"Zentropa" shape.
"Blindness" is not bad at all -- it's just insipid and frustrating. Maybe Meirelles should do next a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian film again and re-fuel his soul with his own culture, language and themes. Brazilian cinema needs him badly; abroad, he's just one more talented, competent "foreign" director, and these multinational ventures often turn out muddled or impersonal (think Kassovitz, Susanne Bier, Hirschbiegel...). He can do much better, and we deserve much better from him.
Os Inconfidentes (1972)
Preaching the revolution -- with lucidity
After the huge critical and box-office acclaim of the iconoclast political satire "Macunaíma" (1969), director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade raised funds in Brazil and Italy (through RAI-TV) to make "Os Inconfidentes", a politically and artistically ambitious (though low budget) film that tries to throw new lights on the most important political event in colonial Brazil the ill-fated plotting of a coup d'état by a group of Brazilian military officers, poets and intellectuals and their failed attempt to overthrow the Portuguese Crown and establish a Brazilian Independent Republic in 1789, inspired by Rousseau and the success of the American Revolution.
The conspiracy failed due to many factors, perhaps most importantly the lack of proper organization, funds and efficient articulation with sympathetic groups. Once the coup plans were discovered, some of the conspirators ("inconfidentes", hence the film's title) were imprisoned and tortured, and one of them committed suicide in jail. Most of them were exiled, but one was "exemplarily" sentenced to death: the impetuous young dentist and low-rank military officer Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, aka "Tiradentes". In 1792, he was hanged, beheaded and quartered, his head and limbs subsequently displayed in public roads as a scary cautionary warning for potential conspirators. One century later, Tiradentes became Brazil's highest martyr and hero, of course, when Independence was finally declared in 1889.
Andrade re-stages (with liberties) the actual events in some of the historical locations (the fantastically well-preserved villages of Ouro Preto and Mariana and their amazing 18th century architecture), aiming at a contemporary political meaning -- in 1972 Brazil was living the darkest years of its violent military regime (1964-1985), with arbitrary imprisonment, torture and/or assassination of hundreds of political activists, not unlike what had happened in 1789. But Andrade wisely avoids naive revolutionary propaganda: "Os Inconfidentes" is rather an alert against hurried, hot-headed, improvisational actions by small activist groups who, though speaking in the name of the "oppressed majority", are perhaps guided by class or political esprit de corps, or utopian, unrealistic ideals (Glauber Rocha had already called attention to these issues with his 1967 "Terra em Transe"). "Os Inconfidentes" is also about the role of artists and intellectuals in the political fights of the tumultuous 1970s, when most of Latin America was stifling under violent military regimes.
Andrade had another BIG obstacle to dribble: censorship, that would never allow him to "reinterpret" the official version of History. Thus, he goes down to the actual historical sources, using as dialog material the actual letters, articles, poems and legal testimonies of the conspirators, as well as the Portuguese government's official reports on the "interrogation" proceedings (that notoriously included torture, as it did in the 1970s). "Os Inconfidentes" features erudite, archaic 18th century vernacular that is almost incomprehensible to average modern audiences, but the subtitles in Portuguese in the newly released restored DVD version are a lot of help (there are also finely translated subtitles in English, French and Spanish). Besides, Andrade takes for granted the audience's knowledge of historical facts: if you really want to understand plot and characters, you have to do your homework first.
This choice for archaic vernacular leads Andrade to let the talented, experienced cast overact (if the audiences can't understand the words, they can at least sense the urgency and despair through loud, theatrical performances), with Wilker (as Tiradentes), Pereio, Sabag and Carlos Gregório shamelessly hamming it up -- though Andrade never lets pastiche set in: it's a painful, tragic film. The film closes with contemporary official propaganda newsreel footage glorifying Tiradentes's martyrdom: we see the "power elite" of Brazilian dictatorship paying homage to a man whose ideology couldn't be farther away from theirs. It's a startling reminder of the way history is often conveniently "reinterpreted" by the men who happen to be in power.
"Os Inconfidentes" is far from an easy film but -- for those willing to do their homework -- it demonstrates that even in times of intense censorship it's still possible to deliver a powerful political message, albeit through "codified" language.
Cão Sem Dono (2007)
Blog translated to movies
"Cão Sem Dono" ("Stray Dog") is the nearest thing resembling a blog that you may see in a movie format. We follow "stray dog" Ciro (scrawny, scruffy Júlio Andrade), a lonely, depressed, boozing, struggling translator whose nihilistic dull life is turned upside down when he meets lively struggling model Marcela (gummy-smiling Tainá Müller), until she's diagnosed with a disease that forces Ciro to realize the urgency of his feelings for her, and also to face his relationship with his parents and his own nameless stray dog (much healthier-looking than Ciro himself).
Most of the film takes place in a bare, shabby flat where the couple make love and avoid talking about their feelings or the past or the future. But "Stray Dog" is a far cry from "Last Tango in Paris": it's a portrait of a Brazilian middle-class 20-something urban generation that failed to make the transition from adolescence into adulthood, marked by emotional, political and philosophical numbness and lack of goals. It's based on the novella by 27 year-old Daniel Galera, who started his career as --you guessed it -- a blog writer. The movie feels just like reading most blogs you find on the net: confessional, self-centered and disillusioned.
"Stray Dog" is just 82 minutes long, though it feels like 120. Not just for the repetitiveness of the scenes and situations, but also because we're stuck with a main character so numb and depressed we wish he were into amphetamines instead of booze and pot. The film becomes a little more lively every time anyone else is on the screen (especially the dog), though most of the actors are asked to perform in a "real-life" key (overlapping banal dialog, mumbling, poor improvising) that makes them little interesting. Fortunately, there are two or three good quotes in prose and poetry (by Sergio Faraco, among others) to momentarily save our ears from the dominant triviality. Most annoying is the film's denouement: a happy ending here was SO uncalled for and SO dissonant with the film's overall mood that director Beto Brant's solution is to do it quickly -- it's the most contrived, unsatisfying, unconvincing happy (or any) ending in recent times and a particular letdown considering Brant's former films (his previous films had quite stunning finales).
Brant's choices continue to astound many of his followers: his first three films ("O Matador", "Ação entre Amigos", "O Invasor") showed he possessed exciting wit, technique and rhythm, with a gift for taut story-telling that's very rare in Brazilian film-making. With his later "Crime Delicado", he chose to experiment with literary and theatrical textures, and though the film never really caught fire, his visual solutions still glowed. With "Cão sem Dono", Brant's talents seem completely wasted: he dives into a petty-poetry, amateur-looking, visually and aurally boring, "love's-the-cure" film that we might expect from an inexperienced 20-something filmmaker (Brant is 42).
Anyway, this film has won a number of awards, and may attract romantic, poetic-natured adolescents and young adults. Tainá Müller's beauty is a definite plus here (though her awful singing is a major turn-off) counterbalancing the fact that we have to endure the sight of Júlio Andrade's scrawny, corpse-like body wearing nothing but drab briefs through most of the film.
Baixio das Bestas (2006)
Stylized, Exhibitionist Mondo Cane
In a small village in the hinterland of Pernambuco (Northeast Brazil), amoral old scrooge Heitor rants about everything and abuses his virgin (technically, at least) 15 year-old granddaughter Auxiliadora (Mariah Teixeira) in every possible way: when she's finished with her daily slave-like house chores, he takes her to a filthy joint and forces her to expose her naked body for a queue of men who pay the old ogre to feel and grope her young flesh. Among these men is Cícero (Caio Blat), an "agroboy" (a Brazilian expression defining young upper- class playboys, jackass-style, in the rural areas) who, in the lulls between violent orgies, beating prostitutes, running over peasants with his car, treating his mother like dung and indulging himself in large quantities of booze and drugs, finds the time to become obsessed with destroying the old man by raping Auxiliadora.
Polemicist director Cláudio Assis seems to follow his controversial film debut "Mango Yellow" with a regional Brazilian version of "A Clockwork Orange". Determined to elbow his way into Brazilian cinema through shocking power, he drowns in contradictions by portraying (like Kubrick did in what's perhaps his most ideologically repugnant film) appalling moral and sexual violence through stylized, almost glamorized aestheticism. With the expert help of top Brazilian D.P. Walter Carvalho, Assis wants to make sure we acknowledge his talent and technique in every shot: he uses beautifully composed images, complex dolly shots, careful lighting and a soigné color palette mainly of yellows, oranges and greens (very tropical) to show social and moral putrefaction. He wags his self-righteous, accusatory finger at his characters and at the audience: it's a massacre and everyone (except maybe himself) is beyond redemption. In Assis's films, life is rotten, people are filthy scumbags (the innocent ones are also doomed), and Dante's Inferno is a refreshing spa compared to Brazilian Northeast reality.
The film benefits immensely from Fernando Teixeira's scary performance as Heitor, with his wealth of rants in fascinating regional vernacular (which is quite untranslatable), as well as Mariah Teixeira's innocent, benumbed passivity that is somehow quite believable -- child prostitution by the initiative of the children's parents and relatives is a social plague of alarming tradition and proportions in North and Northeast Brazil (q.v. "Anjos do Sol").
Unfortunately, the non-stop exploitation on the screen transcends fiction: the orgy/abuse/rape/violence scenes are some of the most repellent, humiliating and disrespectful manipulations of established professional actors ever perpetrated by a filmmaker -- it's astonishing and revolting to see serious actors like Caio Blat, Dira Paes, Hermila Guedes, Berlin award-winner Marcélia Cartaxo and others disposed of like porn cattle (Mateus Nachtergaele's over-the-top wacko comes as no surprise: we all know by now he's into sado-masochist acting). Assis himself appears in a nauseous cameo, as a client caressing the body of the very young Auxiliadora as she becomes a road-side whore (nope, no salvation for her either).
"Baixio das Bestas" is difficult to dismiss as just an over-the-top, contradictory, sadistic film (which it is) by a manipulative, exhibitionist, attention-starving, talented filmmaker (which he is) -- it does expose the painful raw nerves of a regional social and political putrid tissue that most of us don't know about or don't want to be aware of: the exploitative, abusive, boozing, violent, almost-feudalistic macho culture that still thrives in many parts of rural Brazil. The trouble is that the oeuvre of Cláudio Assis (like Sergio Bianchi and his hopelessly pessimistic films, like "Cronicamente Inviável") feeds on dead-end concepts of Brazil as a putrid nation and of the human being either as an irredeemable, violent, corrupt beast or innocent flesh ready to be exploited and abused -- highly debatable concepts, to say the least, and not everyone's idea of a good, intelligent time at the movies. If our "mondo" is a "mondo cane", its stylization is an ideological contradiction that serves no other purpose than to make the twisted joy of sadists, masochists and depressed pessimists. Chacun son goût, I guess.
A fine meal somewhat spoiled by the mismatching dessert, but saved by João Miguel's irresistible performance
"Estômago" is director Marcos Jorge's second feature film, but the first to be released (his feature debut, "Corpos Celestes", still awaits distribution). It's based on Lusa Silvestre's short story "Presos pelo Estômago" and tells the story of Raimundo Nonato, a destitute Northeast peasant who migrates to São Paulo and discovers that his talent for cooking may guarantee his survival in the big town and open doors to power and sex, but also crime.
The film unfolds in two parallel, cross-cutting narratives (linear story-telling is a "disease" to be avoided in 2000s cinema, it seems): 1) Nonato's rise from underdog aid in a cheap, fly-infested snack joint, exploited by sweaty boss Zulmiro, to becoming the protégé of sophisticated Italian-cuisine chef Giovanni, meanwhile falling in love with voluptuous and voracious prostitute Iria; and 2) Nonato's life in prison (we only know why he got there in the end of the movie), trying to learn the codes, rules and peculiar hierarchy of jail life, as he struggles for survival and "social-climbing" through his cooking talents.
There are countless influences/references at play here, from "La Grande Bouffe" to "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", from "Jamón Jamón" and "Tampopo" to "Babette's Feast". But the flavor of "Estômago" is essentially Brazilian, thanks to main character Nonato. He escapes from being a caricature (the naive, ignorant, good-natured, not very bright Northeast hick) solely through the irresistible empathy, perfect comedy-timing, quick wit and stray dog quality of João Miguel's performance (he won the Best Actor award in Rio's 2007 International Film Festival for this role). He's got one of those endlessly watchable faces: we can follow his every little thought, and as fast as he wishes us to. He makes the film stand firmly on track even when the direction strays through lull spots, hesitations and contrivances, and he delivers his burger-quality lines as if they were caviar. In barely 3 years and a half-dozen films, João Miguel proves to be one of the most likable and resourceful actors working in Brazilian movies right now.
You can tell João Miguel's towering contribution to the success of "Estômago" if you consider how everything else in the movie is just average: the script tries too hard to be smart and squeeze the laughs out of the so-so jokes. There are overlong, repetitive scenes, and most of the actors are directed to play types, not characters -- Babu Santana once again does his trademark angry-bulldog gangsta role; Fabiula Nascimento is shamelessly exploited for her opulent Fellinian body rather than her acting talents; Carlo Briani (as Giovanni) and Zeca Cenovicz (as Zulmiro) give stagy performances.
Some other aspects are rather annoying, such as the totally misconceived Morricone- inspired music by Giovanni Venosta ("Pani e Tulipani"); the terribly fake hookers (they're the sweetest, happiest street whores ever); the phony prison inmates (it's got to be the whitest- populated prison in Brazil); and the idiosyncrasies involving "l'art de la cuisine" -- it's hard to believe that a sophisticated Italian chef would find Nonato's salty and cholesterol- friendly cooking (typical of Northeast Brazil) so sublime, or that Nonato could "leap" from being an expert in greasy Brazilian snacks like "coxinhas" and "pastéis" to master the complexities of correctly cooking meat and pork by being a trainee in a pasta-specialty restaurant.
* SPOILER * But most annoying of all is the denouement. Striving for a "witty ending", the director and the writers withhold important changes that should have been in process in Nonato's character just for the sake of taking us by surprise; nevertheless, it's a cliché, pseudo-smart ending. If the goal was to tell a story about how a bon sauvage is corrupted by society and ends up learning to be a smart-ass by using the same weapons as his oppressors, the preparation and transformation in Nonato and the arc in João Miguel's acting are missing (whose fault is that? The actor's, the script's, the director's?). As it is, the resolution feels blunt and over-reaching, like an under-baked, artificially colorized dessert that somewhat spoils the honest, simple, home-made meal that came before it. * END OF SPOILER *
Anyhow, "Estômago" certainly deserves to be seen: its communication with the audience is evident, it has truly funny moments, and João Miguel's winning performance is the very special ingredient that makes the recipe irresistibly tasty.
First-time director José Emílio Rondeau and his wife Ana Maria Bahiana, both in their mid-50s and both journalists in real life, somehow managed to raise funds to make this film about their own love story -- the film is like their mutual wedding anniversary present and we're helping pay for it.
The year is 1972 and the place is Rio de Janeiro: untalented working-class amateur musician Snoopy (professional musician Rafael Rocha, in a bland film debut) and upper middle-class cocotte journalism trainee Julia (Dandara Guerra, daughter of actress Claudia Ohana and director Ruy Guerra, channeling her mother in good looks and modest talent) bicker and quibble till they discover they're meant for eternal love, with the military regime as the de rigueur background scenery and the incipient Brazilian pop-rock scene as the love soundtrack.
It's difficult to know what kind of audience is supposed to enjoy this film. The op art opening credits-- the best thing in the movie -- seem to promise a nostalgia piece aiming at the flower-power generation now in their 50s, who might bring their own kids along (teens will probably be bored stiff with so much romantic love and little sex, besides starting to wonder about their parents' allegedly "cool" past). Instead of free love, political activism, liberated sex and experimenting with drugs, what we have here is monogamous, syrupy romantic love and duplicated navel-gazing on unprecedented level.
If the direction is dismal (it's soap-opera standard inept) and the script and dialog are insufferably cliché (you can outguess every next scene), at least the crew is experienced and lends professional quality to the cinematography, art direction and costumes. The young cast basically consists of non-actors receiving non-instructions from a non-director; the results are unsurprisingly nil. There are professional actors in supporting parts (Louise Cardoso, Elizângela, Lucio Mauro Filho) but there's also the most unfathomable film character in ages: Tony Tornado's ex-military-turned-bum-poet -and-revolutionary-activist-against-the-dictatorship is that kind of part that defies all verisimilitude or analysis (he's a maudlin guardian angel in the worst Hollywood tradition and really offensive to real-life political activists who fought against the Brazilian military regime).
"1972" feels like you're paying to crash into the anniversary party of people you don't know, and their idea of fun is showing you their photos, slides and home videos. Ironically, life imitated art: protagonists Rafael Rocha and Dandara Guerra, probably infused in the romantic atmosphere of the film, fell in love during production and are now married with children. So much for free love and liberated sex; I guess romantic love must be contagious.
(Un)inspired by Mathieu Kassovitz's powerful "La Haine", this ludicrous testosterone-addicted tragic farce "Ódiquê?" (a neologism meaning "ódio de quê?", "hate for what?") follows 24 hours in the life of three 20-something jackass middle-class friends in Rio de Janeiro, who decide to fake the kidnapping of a wealthy buddy so they can collect money to travel to paradisaical beach Arraial d'Ajuda for the Carnaval.
First-time feature film director Felipe Joffily and first-time screenwriter Gustavo Moretzsohn prove that being graduated at NYU Film School doesn't necessarily translate into minimum quality cinema: the plot is a mess and the film looks amateurish even by Youtube standards (I wonder if their NYU teachers saw the film and what was their appreciation of it). Considering it took four years between the writing and the actual shooting, it's alarming how appalling the final script is, with holes, digressions and contrivances enough to madden the most indulgent viewer. It's like a collage of amateur improv acting classes, only there are no real actors at work here (with the exception of old pros Cássia Kiss and Henri Pagnoncelli in embarrassing cameos), just shirtless MTV-type models trying their turn as gross apes with jackass ideas of fun (TV hottie Cauã Reymond is so unskilled he cracks in some of the "dramatic" scenes).
There are serious sound problems, and we can only thank our gods that we can't hear part of the indescribable dialog. The direction is so confusing that we have to waste precious neurons linking the dots between the scenes and figuring out the most basic contradictions, like how these penniless guys have got their own cars and motorbikes or how the shootings cause no stir in the neighborhood. And there is a scene to be inscribed among the most cringe-worthy ever made, where Reymond's character terrorizes a kid who is retarded AND homeless AND black for the fun of it -- it's the kind of cheap, falsely provocative, sickening scene that makes you want to throw rotten eggs at the screen (but then you realize it's not the screen's fault, and anyway you haven't brought rotten eggs with you).
"Ódiquê?" lay on the shelf for three years before finding theatrical distribution, only to open to dismal box-office and critical reception, proving that sometimes distributors, critics and audiences DO agree. "Ódiquê?" wants to be controversial and denunciative when it's just prejudiced, misogynist, scandal-hungry tabloid-cinema: it belongs in the same movie limbo as the excruciating "Cama de Gato" -- films that are best unseen and forgotten. P.S.: to top it all, the DVD transcription has technical problems of its own!
Chega de Saudade (2007)
Dancing with the Stars
The scenery is an old-fashioned dance hall ("gafieira", as we call them in Brazil) that has seen better days. The people who go there are in search of a good time, socializing (and, why not, flirting), fond memories and the very special sort of human contact that ballroom-dancing can provide. Almost all of them are old-timers; those under 50 can be spotted across the room like a flashlight in the dark. We get to meet a bunch of easily recognizable characters: the old, grouchy former ballroom king who's got his foot in plaster (Leonardo Villar); the beautiful old lady slowly sliding into the foggy world of Alzheimer's disease (Tônia Carrero); the "simpaticone" charmer and his irresistible soft small talk (Stepan Nercessian); the roué ex-Don Juan who's become a pool of sarcasm (Luiz Serra); the aging beauty who fails to see she's lost her lure (Betty Faria); the shy spinster who still waits for male initiative (Cássia Kiss); the sensuous, mature tigress whose hot tango is the hors-d'oeuvre to vivid sexual pleasures (Clarisse Abujamra); the huge-bellied, sweaty fatso who dances the night away all by himself (Beno Bider)... Among all these old-timers, a very young, conflicted couple call attention: the frowning, overstressed ballroom sound technician (Paulo Vilhena) and his lovely starry-eyed girlfriend who's never been to a ballroom before (Maria Flor).
Laís Bodanzky's second feature -- seven (!) years after her critical and box-office success "Bicho de Sete Cabeças" -- is a character study comedy influenced by Ettore Scola's and Robert Altman's ensemble pieces, especially Scola's "Le Bal" (1983) in its integration of music, dance and emotion, and "La Cena" (1998), as it also takes place in one single evening. No less than 10 writers have collaborated in the script, so it's no wonder the film seems a collage of sketches, with somewhat stereotyped characters. But there's still a sense of unity and roundness, thanks to Bodanzky's tight direction, Walter Carvallho's hand-held camera-work (which is so close to the actors' faces and bodies it can only be described as biopsy-like) and above all the strong performances by a dream cast of veterans. "Chega de Saudade" is a tribute to some of the most emblematic Brazilian film actors of all time, and the two newcomers -- Paulo Vilhena (a soap-opera ham who gives an unexpectedly fine, subtle performance) and the sensitive and lovely beyond words Maria Flor, with her knock-out smile and ebony eyes that can melt iron -- rise up to the occasion.
There are no tricks in the actors' play; never before have sagging skins, receding hairlines, swollen feet, dried-up hands, double chins and big bellies been so ruthlessly photographed on screen. It takes a while to accept what old age and multiple face-lifts have done to some of the most beautiful Brazilian stars (especially to the one who, in her prime, was surely one of the world's most beautiful women, the now 85-year-old Tônia Carrero). There's no attempt to disguise their ravaged faces with special make-up or soft lighting, and seeing them in blunt, realistic proximity sometimes is a little awkward, as if we'd caught them naked. But soon we realize those zillion wrinkles and age spots have their own kind of beauty, and their talents have now a rich ripeness that only old age and decades of professional experience can bring. What a joy to see them sink their teeth in their roles! Even the cameos by Jorge Loredo, Marlene Silva or Selma Egrei bring fond memories and a sense of comforting familiarity: it's as if we're meeting dear old relatives we hadn't seen for a long time.
The soundtrack is another big asset: there are some 20 vintage Brazilian songs in various genres (including samba, forró, choro, samba-canção, pop, etc) performed by a big band with singers Elza Soares -- her face unrecognizable after innumerable face-lifts and collagen injections, but still showing powerful lungs and infectious swing at 70 -- and Marku Ribas. There are also some vintage ballroom recordings, from an unspeakably kitsch pop version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and Marvin Gaye's soul classic "Let's Get It On" to Norma Bengell's sultry rendition of "C'est Si Bon". Non-Portuguese-speaking audiences won't get the extra subtext that the lyrics of the Brazilian songs bring to each scene, but there will still be plenty to enjoy musically, anyway.
Because of its setting, cast and soundtrack, "Chega de Saudade" may register more deeply with Brazilian viewers over 40 (or 50), but its characters and themes -- getting old and learning to dig it, fighting loneliness, yearning for close physical contact in old age, keeping the love door open, learning to treasure memories while preventing them from hampering the present -- are universal and easily identifiable by any audience. "Chega de Saudade" has got an earthy sense of humor and, even though some of the dialog is schematic and the script seems chopped and some characters are just rough sketches that begged for more screen time to fully "exist", it's thankfully devoid of cheap schmaltz. Recommended for those who enjoy ensemble acting, dancing, music, laughter...and it can probably work miracles for grumpy old heels.
O Padre e a Moça (1966)
Highs and lows
After a great short ("Couro de Gato", included in the omnibus film "Cinco Vezes Favela") and a hit documentary ("Garrincha Alegria do Povo" about 2-time World Cup champion soccer player Garrincha), director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade makes a visually striking but highly irregular fiction feature film debut with "O Padre e a Moça", a story of forbidden and doomed love between a young Catholic Priest (Paulo José) and an abused girl (Helena Ignez) in a tiny village in the hinterland of Minas Gerais (Southeast Brazil), in an liberal adaptation of the poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
The film suffers from pace problems: the first half is great, the second half drags on purposelessly. The characters are sketched to remain mysterious (it's all suggestions, nothing is defined), but you could also call them underdeveloped. Carlos Lyra's music is either in the wrong places or missing in scenes that begged for a score. The chiaroscuro cinematography by Mário Carneiro has extraordinary moments, but sometimes the film simply "stops" for the sake of beautiful framings and compositions. The film benefits immensely from all-location shooting in the tiny village of São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras, with its ruined vestiges of 18th century grandeur (it used to be a diamond exploitation site), Brazilian colonial architecture and rococo churches. There's also an effective use of the local population in bit parts, adding to the film's sense of realism.
Above all, it's a chance to see the striking debut of actor Paulo José, who was summoned two days prior to shooting as a replacement for another actor who fell ill. A stage actor, Paulo had no previous film experience, but -- bingo! -- with "O Padre e a Moça" one of the best ever Brazilian film actors was born, and in the following year he would become a full-fledged star with Domingo de Oliveira's hit "Todas as Mulheres do Mundo". There isn't one single false note in his portrayal of the repressed, anguished priest, and he has one of the those faces you don't get tired of watching. Helena Ignez was never lovelier and is thoroughly believable as the beautiful, stifling, abused girl who entices men's desire and women's envy. Mario Lago is perfect as the village's big-boss who abuses everyone and plays father-lover to the girl. Fauzi Arap lends nervousness to the confusing part of the drunkard who claims to have an affair with the girl (though there's a strong suggestion he's impotent).
Recommended for Cinema Novo fans and viewers who don't have problems with slow-paced and Catholic-guilt films, "O Padre e a Moça" is the flawed but honorable fiction debut of an important filmmaker whose next film would take Brazilian cinema by storm: the iconoclast, trend-setting, revolutionary masterpiece "Macunaíma", the biggest hit of the Cinema Novo movement.
Jogo de Cena (2007)
Fascinating mind game is Coutinho's best film in years
Just when Eduardo Coutinho's (semi)documentaries seemed to have become uncomfortably predictable -- when his personalist, inquisitive, biased, "screw-impartiality" style seemed to take over whatever reality he was investigating at the time -- "Jogo de Cena" arrives to show us that, at 74, he has found extra breath and is at the top of his game.
I have little to add to blur4fun spot-on comment here, except to say this is one of the wittiest formalist exercises on film structure in recent memory. It proves that imagination and intelligence can make seemingly ordinary material -- life stories told (or enacted) by women who may or may not be actresses -- rise to puzzling metalinguistic heights when cleverly rearranged and interconnected. It's also a well-humored investigation about the elastic boundaries of the eternal "truth or artifice" issue in the documentary form.
At first, what we see on the screen seems to belong to daytime TV slice-of-life talk-shows: people spilling out their personal dramas and tragedies. But, as in Jean Rouch's partly fake "Chronique d'un Été" and Orson Welles's landmark faux-documentary "F for Fake" (both seem to be influential here), somewhere along the way, we become mind- boggled: is that a "real life" woman or an actress? Who's the real "owner" of that life story? What is more important, to believe in the story or in the person who's telling it? Does the fact of suddenly realizing someone is acting out (and fooling us) prevent us from being moved by that story? Why do we take for granted that certain "formats" present the truth, like documentaries and one-on-one interviews?
By the end of "Jogo de Cena" (the title aptly refers to the theatrical world of make believe, and it's not by chance the single set is an empty stage), we realize -- with a smile -- that we've been had, and, though the film is strictly realistic in its visual style, it's a journey that can be as rich and fun as letting your mind be bent by a Cortázar story, a Robbe-Grillet novella, a Buñuel film or an Escher drawing.
"Jogo de Cena" comes out in the same year as remarkable Brazilian films like "Proibido Proibir", "Santiago", "O Ano em que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias", "Mutum", "Cidade dos Homens", "Saneamento Básico"; controversial ones like "Baixio das Bestas", "Cão sem Dono", "Estômago", "O Cheiro do Ralo", besides the box-office bulldozer (and winner of the Berlin Golden Bear) "Tropa de Elite". In the future, 2007 will have to be remembered as a very special year for Brazilian cinema.
Above average collection, with jewels from Kapadia, Nolan and Leigh
16 outstanding shorts produced between the 1960s and the 2000s by three generations of British (or UK-based) filmmakers, a few of whom have become A-list names (Stephen Daldry, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Mike Leigh, Peter Greenaway). In this collection, there is the good, the bad and the ugly, naturally: some are silly but simpatico (Simon Ellis' Norman McLaren-ish "Telling Lies", Toby MacDonald's spoof on French Nouvelle Vague "Je t'Aime John Wayne", Adrian McDowall's funny study of two teen dim-wits "Who's My Favorite Girl?"). Some are just plain silly (Martin Parr's candid-camera slice-of-life "UK Images", Jim Gillespie's pretentious and dull "Joyride", Charles & Thomas Guard's unfunny and maudlin "Inside-Out", saved by Lena Headey's luminous beauty).
Some call attention for their great technique (Ridley Scott's visually arresting but self- indulgent and overlong "Boy and Bicycle", Christopher Nolan's 3-minute bull's-eye Kafkian spoof "Doodlebug"). Others for their psychological insight (Stephen Daldry's sensitive and creative "Eight", Brian Percival's acidly funny and very bleak "About a Girl", Lynne Ramsay's devastatingly sad "Gasman", Morag McKinnon's fine character study "Home", and especially Mike Leigh's exhilarating "The Short and Curlies", with dialog to match and superb performances by David Thewlis and Alison Steadman).
Standing apart are two formal experiments in original keys: Peter Greenaway's early (and already a display of his very individual style) sort of schizoid homage to English phone booths in the brainy, difficult "Dear Phone"; and John Smith's endearing but fatally overlong "The Girl Chewing Gum", a great idea -- a spoof on the illusion of omnipotence that thrives in every filmmaker ever born -- that begins just right but loses momentum for lack of equally creative development and conclusion.
But for me the champ is Asif Kapadia's spellbinding, exquisitely scripted, edited and directed moral tale "The Sheep Thief", set in the arid landscape of Rajasthan, India. It's the story of a pauper, orphan teenage boy who steals a sheep, gets caught and is branded with a "thief" mark on his forehead. Rejected and outcast, he steals a scarf, wears it like a bandanna (to hide the mark) and goes to a tiny village in the desert, where he tries to correct his ways when he finds compassion, friendship, lodging and work with a family (a poor mango-selling mother and her two kids) that takes him under its wing. But his past and his "vocation" (or essence, if you think in karmic terms), combined with other people's prejudice and intolerance and the mysterious ways of fate make him acknowledge the truth about himself. A visual joy (fine camera-work by Roman Osin, incredible scenery) and with sublime Hindu-style music by Dario Marianelli, "The Sheep Thief" is a great film by any standards (especially considering it's a graduation film), but it has a particular glow in this collection for being so different from all the other shorts, in form, tempo, depth and spirit. A precious gem.
Paranoid Park (2007)
Tadzio-Raskolnikov in Portland
I'm not a Gus Van Sant fan, but I have to admit "Paranoid Park" got under my skin: it's a fascinating film. His adaptation of the novel by Blake Nelson (both GVS and Nelson are from Oregon and their oeuvre is centered around American Teenland) allows GVS to do a sort of small-scale contemporary American version of "Crime and Punishment". As in Dostoyevsky, GVS uses a gruesome killing (deliberate in Dostoyevsky, accidental here) as a motif to expose the nature and process of guilt, (self-) punishment, youth, conventions, repressed emotions, social and moral malaise in his society.
Gus Van Aschenba... uh, I mean Gus Van Sant's fascination with teen boys is taken to the hilt in "Paranoid Park", as he follows his unfathomable Tadzio-Raskolnikov: the introspective, sexually ambiguous and emotionally muted skateboarder named Alex, played by Gabe Nevins, whose blank Botticelli face and blasé demeanor hide his character's soul-searching turmoil. The swooning, voyeuristic camera follows Alex so closely and so insistently that it seems it's trying to penetrate and discover, under those expressionless features and monotone voice, the complex feelings that Alex is struggling to understand and keep under control, especially after tragedy strikes when he kills a security guard in a terrible railway accident.
The "thriller" plot is cleverly built, but of lesser importance; it's Alex's existential/moral crisis and GVS's concern with "America's misfit kids" that really matter in "Paranoid Park". The serpentine camera dances around the skateboarders in slow motion, à la Wong Kar-Wai, observing their beautiful air arabesques and their gravity-challenging leaps that seem to reach for cleaner oxygen, above ground-stuck conformity and ordinariness. The adrenaline-addicted skateboarders of Paranoid Park live in a sort of adolescent purgatory, where time also seems to loop; "growing-up" (which includes the possibility of going to war) is postponed, and it's no wonder we see some "over-aged" teens there, like the older guy who takes Alex to the ill-fated freight train ride.
But "Paranoid Park" is more than a sympathetic portrait of a certain American youth (the kind that we don't often see in American movies). It's also a free-spirited aesthetic exploration, visually (contrasting film textures; focus/out-of-focus shots; marked impressionistic style; the trademark but still hypnotizing slow-motion shots of cameraman's Christopher Doyle); rhythmically (witty editing, and we can thank all our gods it's only 85 minutes long), and aurally (GVS uses a VERY eclectic soundtrack -- classical music, folk, rock, hip hop, French concrete music and a lot of Nino Rota -- like a teen zapping his iPod). I was especially puzzled at GVS's extensive use of Rota's score for Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits". At first, sight and sound didn't seem to match at all; but then it's true that both Alex and Giulietta are closed-in, dissatisfied, emotionally repressed misfits trying to cope with their loneliness and malaise by learning to confront and accept their personal ghosts -- though, by the end of their journey, we may fear for their mental sanity.
Another fascinating aspect of "Paranoid Park" is that GVS shows mature fair-play about his traumatic failure with the "Psycho" remake (also photographed by Doyle). Most obviously with two scenes that directly revisit "Psycho": the car-driving scene in rainy weather with non-stop music on the soundtrack -- a sign of the upcoming ominous events; and the magnificent shower scene, this time in extreme close- up and extreme slow-motion, with running water flowing through Alex's long hair forming a translucent, medusa-like image of mesmerizing beauty, electrified by a crescendo effect of (apparently) rattling waterdrop sounds mixed with loud bird chirps (remember bird sounds also inspired the legendary Bernard Herrmann's staccato shower murder theme in "Psycho", as Norman Bates was a bird taxidermist). There's even the same shot of Alex slowly gliding down against the wall in the shower, as Marion Crane in Hitchcock's classic.
Both in "Psycho" and in "Paranoid Park", the shower scenes are a body/soul-cleansing ritual, the climax of each film and a turning point for the protagonists: for Marion Crane it's unexpected death (punishment); for Alex it's the decision to keep silent about his crime (self-punishment). As in "Psycho", there is the observation of guilt underneath "innocent" appearance (Alex, Marion Crane and Norman Bates look perfectly innocent), and repressed sexuality (both Alex and Norman are sexually numb though aware they're attractive to women). And as in "Psycho", there's the unfailing intuition of a detective, here played by Daniel Liu, who looks like an Asian Martin Balsam, and whose eyes are so different one from the other -- one is lidless, accusatory, fixed; the other is heavy-lidded, world-weary, understanding --that when he stares at Alex he seems to figure out both sides of the boy.
The main weakness in the film is GVS's portrayal of females. It's obvious Alex couldn't care less about his hysterical cheer-leading girlfriend determined to get rid of her virginity, but did she have to be portrayed as an insufferable bore? And did Lauren McKinney, who plays the girl secretly in love with Alex, have to be so unflatteringly photographed? (compare her cruel close-ups with the slow-motion parade of gorgeous skateboarding ephebes at the school). And need I say Alex's mother (as in "Psycho") is only seen out of focus, far in the distance or from behind? (this time around we DO get to see the face and body of a father in a GVS film -- and, man, it's a scary vision).
Even if "Paranoid Park" isn't your cup of tea, one has to admit GVS is a rarity among established contemporary American filmmakers: he has, through the years, been brave enough to stick to his thematic obsessions (young male beauty, the loneliness of non-conformism, the failure of the American dream and the traditional family, the complexity that lies under the apparent numbness and superficiality of American teens), and put them in films that -- while certainly not for all tastes -- get more fascinating as they get more personal and self-revelatory by refusing to be "big".
Meu Nome Não é Johnny (2008)
White Boogie Nights in Rio
Fast, hip and mod film adaptation of the true story of João Guilherme Estrella, an upper-middle-class dope-head who turned into serious addict and, against all odds, a top cocaine dealer in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1990s. The film follows his glamorized coke-snorting glory days and his later detention, trial, imprisonment and subsequent confinement in a state institution for mentally disturbed criminals. Based on the biography written by Guilherme Fiúza that provides most of the film's light tone and funny dialog, the film is a comedy -- yes, a comedy! -- about drug addiction and dealing, in the line of Ted Demme's "Blow" and particularly influenced by the episodic structure, pop flavor and sense of humor of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights".
The "rise" of Estrella in the drug world is made to look sexy, cool, adventurous and a lot of fun, though it isn't exactly believable -- his drug connections are never satisfactorily explained, probably because it's still legally dangerous to dot all the "ii". Anyway, it's obvious the filmmakers aren't interested in "denouncing" Rio's drug business, but in audience adhesion and laughter: even Estrella's sojourn in prison and in the appalling mental institution are meant to be funny, instead of depressing and scary, and the long sequence of Estrella being harassed and blackmailed by two corrupt cops seems inspired by the antics of Abbott & Costello or Oscarito & Grande Otelo.
The film is totally centered around Selton Mello, who finds in the part of Estrella the perfect vehicle for his peculiar cinematic persona: ironic, funny, non-chalant, quick-spoken, Mello acts as if he's ad-libbing and is the right choice for this kind of role, though possibly with the wrong physique (it's hard to believe that a man who admittedly sniffed up to 100 grams of coke per week could look this chubby -- but the real Estrella IS chubby, at least nowadays). The rest of the cast varies from fine (veteran Eva Todor, Cássia Kiss, Orã Figueiredo, the lovely and talented Rafaella Mandelli), to insipid (clueless Cléo Pires, whose role is fortunately rather small), from weird (Júlia Lemmertz plays Selton Mello's mother!) to over the top (Flavio Bauraqui and Aramis Trindade overacting once again).
Mauro Lima's direction shows assuredness and objectivity -- he's not a technique freak but there are some exciting dolly shots -- though the film would certainly benefit from a bigger budget and longer schedule (there are sequences in Barcelona and Venice that seem made in a terrible hurry). Lima and producer Mariza Leão wrote the clever script aiming at young audiences used to sitcoms and comic strips; well, the jokes do work and the dialog is above TV average, though the tear-jerking trial scene is longish and maudlin.
There are big issues that the film doesn't really want to discuss, like the fact that Estrella could play for laughs because, being white and middle-class, he knew he would come out alive and free from his failed drug-lord fantasy (whereas black and poor traffickers get dead or rot in prison). Or the fact that, though the film is being (mis)marketed as a "cautionary story" for teenagers who might be curious about experimenting with drugs, it's rather a "feel-good" drug movie that isn't really meant to warn or scare drug neophytes or anyone else, especially because of Selton Mello's "cool" demeanor and the happy-ending. On the contrary: I suspect many teenagers leave the theater with the idea that coke-snorting mustn't be all THAT bad (and we know, don't we, that coke has made its comeback). Despite the potentially violent and tragic overtones of the theme, the ultimate goal of the film is to be fun, cool and hip -- and that, "Johnny" undoubtedly succeeds.
PS: There's a final credit that states that João Guilherme Estrella is now drug-free and works as music producer, singer and composer, but don't scratch your head if you've never heard of him -- he's hardly famous. Following the film's big box-office results (2 million+ tickets sold), Brazilian EMI Music released Estrella's debut album as singer and composer, which was a big critical and commercial flop.
Wisely unfaithful to Guimarães Rosa's novel
Don't look for the brilliant revolutionary prose of Guimarães Rosa's novel "Campo Geral" in Sandra Kogut's "Mutum". Kogut dropped the impossible task of making a "faithful" adaptation of the unfilmable book, and wisely opted for a sort of " visual translation": instead of having the mostly non- professional cast (the only exception is pro João Miguel as the father) speak Rosa's highly stylized vernacular (it would sound horribly phony on screen), Kogut minimizes and simplifies dialog to concentrate on atmosphere. The images and sounds are so "palpable" the film becomes an impressionist, almost tactile experience: we can "feel" the dust, the hot sun, the sudden windstorms, and even seem to smell the scent of the heavy rain, of the horses and chickens.
We follow the coming of age of 9 year-old Thiago (originally named Miguilim in Rosa's novel), a sensitive, quiet boy living with his family in a humble, isolated farm in the back land of Minas Gerais (Southeast Brazil). Thiago's simple joys -- laughing at his parrot, playing with his siblings, contemplating nature -- become threatened by a series of events he can't understand: something seems to be going on between his mother and his uncle (his father's brother); Thiago's hard-working, no-nonsense father resents him for being "weird" (too sensitive) and makes him work in the fields, though Thiago's frail arms can hardly lift the shovel. Thiago's world is in shambles after the sudden illness and death of his adorable younger brother Felipe, filling him with guilt, anguish and grief.
Grand winner at Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival 2007, "Mutum" has major assets: it's a triumphant fiction debut for documaker Kogut, who mixes improvised and rehearsed scenes seamlessly and has her non-professional cast dive head-first into the difficult emotional scenes, with the two boys playing Thiago and Felipe immediately winning our hearts (the controversial work of omnipresent acting coach Fátima Toledo is flawless this time). Mauro Pinheiro's cinematography is as unaffected and richly textured as his work in "Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus", and the film's pace is thankfully unhurried. Kogut's decision not to use background music is possibly her wisest move: we're never "told" what to feel, and the huge wealth of natural sounds makes us feel right there in that isolated, timeless piece of land.
Perhaps the last 10 minutes aren't quite on the same level of what's come before; the denouement feels rather blunt, as Thiago's life is changed when he casually finds out he's shortsighted (and that works on both literal and metaphorical levels). Anyway, in its delicate, unpretentious, impressionistic simplicity, "Mutum" is a gem of understated beauty and exhilarating grace, if only to give us a break from the exhausting, exhibitionist, empty hyperactivity of most of the contemporary film-making styles.
O País de São Saruê (1971)
Vladimir Carvalho's influential, troubled documentary reveals to us the dire reality of the population of Rio do Peixe, in the hinterland of the state of Paraíba (Northeast Brazil), and their struggle against the harsh weather (long droughts cut by sudden violent floods). We see the perennially pauper cotton croppers, sugar-cane cutters and cowherds at their weekly meeting in a small marketplace where they try to keep up the slowly dying traditions (dances, chantings, costumes, food). It also about their dream of finding the promise land of São Saruê (a sort of local Eldorado) in a region said to be rich in mineral ores, though the past attempts at exploration were frustrated for logistic and political reasons.
Shot under extremely difficult conditions -- expired film stock, zero budget, inhospitable nature -- from 1966 to 1970, during the Brazilian military regime, the entire filming crew consisted of Carvalho, cameraman Manuel Clemente and assistant Walter Carvalho (the director's younger brother who would become Brazil's top cinematographer in the 1990s and 2000s). The soundtrack mixes excerpts of the interviews with the local people with pop and traditional songs, a commentary written by the director and the magnificent, volcanic political verses of Jomar Moraes Souto's epic poem, written especially for the film. "País..." was finalized in 1971 but its public exhibition was vetoed by the military censorship (classifying it as "harmful to Brazilian interests and dignity") until 1979, when it opened to great critical acclaim.
In 2004, the film was saved from total deterioration and painstakingly restored. The DVD release by VideoFilmes is based on the remastered copy, but don't expect pristine images or travelogue aesthetics: this is a harsh, primitive black-and-white film about a harsh, primitive reality. The technique is also primitive, but the images are powerful: some of them now belong to an extinct past, like the rustic ox-operated sugar-cane mill called "bolandeira" (re-created by Walter Salles in "Behind the Sun") or the traditional format of the Cavalo Marinho song-and-dance celebration. Others are still very much alive, like unchanging poverty, religious fervor, major illiteracy, labor exploitation and politicians' maladministration.
The film has highs and lows: it moves (coherently) slowly, it digresses a lot, some of the interviews are over-extended and some that might be interesting weren't made. And sure, the commentary written by Carvalho is politically biased -- remember, those were radical times in Brazilian history. But the people's struggles and desolation come across poignantly in some indelible images, though it's Souto's soaring, sarcastic, virtuoso epic poem that gives the film its extraordinary power -- it HAS to be one of the major epic poems ever written. And there's a truly heart-wrenching, unforgettable sequence with a destitute, famished cotton-cropping family trying to find something (anything) to eat, while we listen to the great singer/ composer Luís Gonzaga's devastatingly moving rendition of Zé Dantas's song "Acauã" (the name of the small frail bird the father shoots, roasts and shares with his wife and son) -- in those 4 minutes, "País de São Saruê" transcends the socially-aware, denunciative documentary form to become a universal, timeless work of art.
Batismo de Sangue (2006)
A well-intentioned mess
The true story of four Dominican friars -- Tito (Caio Blat), Fernando (Léo Quintão), Ivo (Odilon Esteves) and Betto (Daniel de Oliveira) -- who, in the late 1960s, were actively engaged in helping left-wing organizations in radical actions against the ultra-violent Brazilian military regime. Denounced, arbitrarily arrested and savagely tortured in military and police precincts, they were subsequently prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated, but one of them would not survive: Tito, exiled in France, paranoid, depressed and unable to cope with the terrifying memories of physical and psychological torture, committed suicide in 1973, hanging himself from a tree in the Convent of La Tourette.
"Batismo de Sangue", based on Frei (friar) Betto's eponymous best-selling account of the facts, is yet another piece in the mosaic Brazilian filmmakers are trying to assemble concerning the tragic, traumatic "lead years" of the military regime in Brazil (1964-1985). The fact that Betto, Fernando and Ivo are still alive and have collaborated with director/writer Helvécio Ratton in the film gives "Batismo" a first-hand, I've-been-there legitimacy. Regrettably, the film turns out to be an honest, serious, well-intentioned mess.
The main problem with "Batismo" is the shapeless, confusing screenplay: the facts are thrown on the screen with no links, preparation, dramatic criteria. Ratton doesn't know how to select his material: instead of choosing a few characters and situations and developing them, he sticks in loads of absolutely expendable scenes and characters (e.g. the journalist who's in love with Betto, Tito's sister, etc) and chops everything up to the point of unintelligibility. You have to do the writers' work for them, figuring out who's who, what their connections are, establishing causes and effects, and filling in the narrative gaps.
The four main characters have no individual personalities, no back stories, we know nothing about them except that they are Dominican friars who somehow got caught up in the events. And it doesn't help that they all look alike, with their white habits, dark hair and thick glasses. We never get to understand WHY Tito sinks into paranoia and depression while the other three somehow get over their harsh experience. Likewise, the "evil" characters (the torturers) are laughable caricatures, devils just short of having horns and hoofs. We also have to deal with dozens of sketchy under-written characters -- friars, students, political activists, prison inmates, lawyers, judges, and the women in general -- who overcrowd the screen and make things even more confusing.
The time that could be devoted to building up the characters is spent on gruesome, graphic torture scenes. No doubt it's important to show to younger generations that, not so long ago, systematic torture was an institutionalized routine praxis of the Brazilian Military Government. But those scenes backfire: we know so little about the friars who are being tortured that all we can do is appreciate how realistic, disgusting and bloody it all looks -- in those scenes the film dangerously slips into the slasher/gore genre.
Naturally, the film is unavoidably Catholic: there are scenes of enlightening egalitarian sermons, soul-searching antiphonies and chantings, improvised masses in the filthy prison cells that melt down the hard hearts of the atheist Communist activists (but not the hearts of the eeeevil military, of course, though they were probably Catholic themselves), theological explanations about how St.Thomas Aquinas can be summoned to validate guerrillas, and how Communists and Dominicans are meant to be brothers deep down, since Jesus was a revolutionary activist who was also persecuted, tortured and murdered. These long scenes can be REALLY off-putting for non-Catholics.
There are other disappointments: the cast is under-used, with fine actors like Daniel de Oliveira and Ângelo Antônio especially wasted. Caio Blat seems, like us, totally lost about Tito: he jumps from goofy, joyous innocence to faithless, depressive paranoia with nothing in-between. First-timers Léo Quintão and Odilon Esteves are unimpressive and Marku Ribas as Marighella is an embarrassment. Worst of all is scenery-chewing Cássio Gabus Mendes as the tough big boss torturer Fleury: he yells so much his voice goes into spasms. The music by the great experimental musician Marco Antonio Guimarães is disappointingly ineffective: it just isn't film music. On the positive side, Lauro Escorel's cinematography is very accomplished, as usual, and Adrian Cooper's art direction is suitably evocative of that era.
I wish I could recommend "Batismo de Sangue": it's a serious enterprise full of good intentions -- but that's about it. However, it will perhaps urge some viewers to read Frei Betto's far more comprehensive and coherent book, so the film's not a complete waste of everybody's efforts.