Brazilians Bring It On
Once again reels from Rio will screen on the sands of Miami Beach to kick off this year's festival, which includes 24 films and visits by a number of actors and directors. The big treat: For the first time ever, the opening film (A Dog's Will, reviewed below) will be projected in high-definition TV -- and for the first time ever both the HDTV equipment and all the films will travel to New York, where the opener shows out in Central Park. The reason we get this lucky (there are supposedly only 39 theaters in the world with HDTV capabilities) is because the company behind the equipment is Brazilian. After the big-screen beach fun, the festival moves indoors to the Colony Theatre from June 3 through 9; each feature flick is preceded by a short. This is also an industry event, so there will be panels and discussions on the how-tos of financing, pitching, and producing, tailored toward independent and foreign films. Of the feature films, a number have a sense of whimsy, and a general theme seems to be time-tripping. A Dog's Will and O Xangô de Baker Street dwell in the land of farce, while a lyrical trip through the time of a famed neighborhood is the basis for Copacabana. Caramuru follows the voyage of a Portuguese painter and his maps, his Indian princess and tropical discoveries, and his claim to a kingdom later to be known as Brazil; Two Times With Helena takes place in 1940s São Paulo, then jumps to the 1970s (turbulent periods for Brazil), when three lovers meet again; and The Inheritance and Overwhelming Women are thoroughly modern tales of thoroughly modern women in a reinvigorated Brazil. -- Anne Tschida
Of Jack the Cricket
Guel Arraes's magical realist morality tale A Dog's Will (Auto da Compadecida) is an adventurous collage of telenovela and art cinema, slapstick comedy and social chronicle. Created as a television miniseries, it was a huge success in Brazil, both on TV and later in movie theaters. Arraes, a director known for making superior programs for Brazil's Globo Network, shot the miniseries on film instead of video, and after its small-screen showing he edited this version for commercial release.
Dog's Will is adapted from Ariano Suassuna's play by the same name, a work that is perennially performed by theater companies large and small all over Brazil. Suassuna is renowned for his provocative treatment of the popular culture in the country's northeast region -- in this case bashing the clergy and its powerful hold on the Brazilian people, and lampooning landholders and the merchant class. He wrote the script in 1955, which accounts for the characters' shopworn "insights" and stale jokes in the movie version. The film is in large part a shrill farce, and its first half relays the predictable foibles of the residents of a small northeastern town and their sinful prejudices, corrupt practices, and randy behavior.
The director's sweet imagination thankfully overcomes the small-town comedy routines with cartoonlike dream sequences, and as the film progresses, patience pays off with a divinely ridiculous Judgment Day scene that's part Buñuel, part The Weakest Link. Arraes succeeds with silly costumes and even with documentary footage of rural Brazil's poor that makes up a brief segment of the film.
The movie centers on the exploits of two destitute friends, João Grilo (Matheus Nachtergaele) -- Jack the Cricket in English -- and Chicó (Selton Mello), who find work in a bakery. The baker (Diogo Vilela) and his wife (an annoying shrieker played by Denise Fraga) treat their employees worse than a dog -- proved when the dog eats Jack and Chicó's dinner, and she dies. After some conniving on Jack the Cricket's part -- he tells the town priest and visiting bishop that the dog left a will in which they were provided for -- the clergymen agree to give the dog a Catholic burial in Latin. Meanwhile the daughter of the town's richest man falls in love with Chicó, the poor idiot savant of the story, and he must compete for her hand with her other suitors, a corporal and the town bully. Eventually a one-eyed beggar avenges his fate by becoming a bandit, and his gang kills the whole crew of characters, including him. Everyone ends up in purgatory, to be judged by the Devil, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary.
The cast is made up of fine actors, with Nachtergaele and Mello excelling in their roles as respectively tricky and sensitive buffoons. As an extra treat, the marvelous Fernanda Montenegro of Central Station fame plays the Virgin Mary. -- Judy Cantor
Of Jack the Ripper
A long time ago, in this very same galaxy, blood flowed from young women's throats in dark alleyways. In O Xangô de Baker Street writer/director Miguel Faria, Jr., delivers a prequel of sorts, á la George Lucas, relating to the legend of Jack the Ripper. The film, with its goofy sendup of super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes's misadventures in Amazonia, could appropriately be called João the Ripper.
Set in Rio de Janeiro in the waning days of slavery, Xangô engages viewers with a good old-fashioned whodunit. A rash of killings in which young women's necks are slashed coincides with the theft of a Stradivarius violin, which the famous inspector is brought in to investigate.
Once in town Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson soon employ their powers of deductive reasoning to discover that whomever stole the fine fiddle may indeed be the serial killer. As is to be expected, the detective work is elementary, my dear Watson, elementary. The murderer, identified as the world's first serial killer, leaves telltale clues. Bloody violin strings are placed atop his victims' unmentionables, and the slasher disappears into the shadows playing a mournful tune on a -- you guessed it -- violin.
The film begins in the style and tone of a serious period drama, but as the story unfolds, Xangô morphs into a lighthearted farce peppered with one-liners and slapstick routines not far removed from the 1980s Airplane movies.
Such a turn would fall flat with any other cast of players, but the well-paced and subtle performances of Joaquim de Almeida as Sherlock Holmes and Anthony O'Donnell as Doc Watson, set against a colorful cast of Brazilian intellectuals and a slumming Sarah Bernhardt (Maria de Medeiros), make this comedic telling of an otherwise dreary tale as welcome as a beachy samba party.
Xangô's strength lies in its textured characters. We get a multifaceted rendering of our favorite Scotland Yard inspector, whose sex appeal is played out in a storyline with a beautiful mulatto showgirl. The sexual spin pays off comedically when Holmes reveals his experience (or lack thereof) with the ladies. We see Holmes stuff his emblematic pipe with hooch, referred to as "Indian tobacco." When asked by his sidekick what he is smoking, the bleary-eyed inspector posits blissfully, "It's wonderful weed, Watson, won't you have some?"
The humorous script is effective enough to suspend one's disbelief, although some of the slapstick, such as the tossing of a freshly extricated liver of one of the victims, hot-potato style, may seem far-fetched. Still as a comedic tool, it works.
Though the comedic elements may hit their marks, the underlying slayer mystery falls by the wayside. When the murderer is finally exposed and the methodical manner in which he carried out his crimes is revealed, the audience must stretch to recall the murder plot.
The truth of the story is a bit tough to swallow, but compared with the hack job that Hollywood did with the Johnny Depp film From Hell, in which Queen Victoria is essentially revealed as Jack the Ripper's protector, the Brazilian interpretation goes down nicely if even a wee bit challenging, like a spicy feijoada. -- Juan Carlos Rodriguez
Of Jack and the Strippers
Like most celluloid private eyes worth their weathered boots, Remo Bellini has all the right stuff. He's tough, he's daring, he's got a great pad with a view, and he struts deliciously in a tight pair of jeans. It goes without saying his calling card works wonders with the droves of women he encounters on a given day, though it also allows for well-placed lumps by unknown bad guys on his sexy little head.
It's just part of the daily grind for Bellini as he works his way through the intricate maze laid before him in Bellini and the Sphynx (Bellini e a Esfinge), a promising thriller set in São Paolo's sleazy world of prostitutes, druggies, and hired guns.
Bellini (Fábio Assunção) is called to action when a prominent physician hires his firm to search for an exotic dancer who's vanished, and with whom the doctor is fitfully in love. When the man of medicine is found beaten to death in his office a short time later, Bellini and his new partner, Beatriz, are thrust into a confusing world of dual identities and bad intentions.
And as with any detective tale worth its telling, the circumstances of the plot are secondary to deeper and more intriguing human questions. The mystery cast before the hunky protagonist inadvertently forces Bellini to face his own vulnerabilities. The vehicle for this inner turmoil is women, of course. As voiced by a laughing pimp-owner of a strip joint, "All women are an illusion, heh heh heh."
The statement becomes a tormenting mantra for the young detective's unconscious as he delves deeper into the case, and Beatriz digs deeper into his pants. The plot twists become an unfathomable web that leave the protagonist confused and dejected. But still, like all the great street-level, sexy private dicks before him (think Dirty Harry, Dan Tanna, and Tony Baretta), Bellini must hit rock bottom to tap into his true heroic self.
While the film employs the right techniques, such as seemingly endless plot convulsions, action scenes, a stable of sleazy characters, and sex sex sex, Bellini and the Sphynx lacks perhaps the most important ingredient to captivate moviegoers -- suspense. It seems at times as if director Roberto Santucci Filho is torn between creating a realistic, deep-thinking drama and a sensational tits-and-ass thriller. This directorial crossroads hinders the pace of Bellini and the Sphynx to where it feels more like a television action series than a well-produced feature film. -- Juan Carlos Rodriguez
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