Between Valleys (2012)

In film about the same man (or is it two different men?) in divergent situations, hysteria takes away from what could have been an insightful take on how similar we are.

between-valleysBrazil
3*

Director:
Philippe Barcinski

Screenwriters:
Philippe Barcinski
Fabiana Werneck Barcinski

Director of Photography:
Walter Carvalho

Running time: 80 minutes

Original title: Entre vales

The two men look identical. One is an economist and lives with his wife and child in a nice house in São Paulo, Brazil. He is called Antonio. The other, looking much more haggard but otherwise an exact copy of Antonio, works on an enormous rubbish heap outside the large metropolis and sleeps wherever he can. His name is Vicente.

Between Valleys (Entre Vales) cuts between the two characters throughout its 80-minute duration, running out the clock by making us ask more and more questions about the two characters’ relationship to each other. Director Philippe Barcinski also uses his camera in a peculiar way that emphasises the instability of perception when it comes to a specific object, but in the end we can feel satisfied that we have been given all the information we were looking for.

The film’s pre-credits opening scene shows us Antonio (played by Ângelo Antônio) drunk behind the wheel of his car, racing down an empty road in the dead of night. We don’t know who he is yet, but this does not bode well for the character. The first scene after the credits comprises many shots of workers on a seemingly endless landfill, as truckloads of rubbish are being dumped and spread out over a vast area, and the workers scurry across the discarded trash in seemingly random patterns, picking here and there and salvaging a piece of plastic that can be exchanged for a few reais from the recycling companies.

But before we can know what this scene means, Antonio appears with his son a short distance from the site to inspect a potential location for a new landfill. Antonio seems to have it all, but over the course of the film, he will lose almost everything that he values and end up drunk in the car.

At the same time, we see the journey of Vicente, who works on the landfill but whose beard is surprisingly short for someone who appears to be homeless and who has little knowledge of the operations on the landfill. Who is this man? Is it really Antonio, at some point in the future or maybe even the past? Will we eventually see at what point Antonio became Vicente or vice versa?

These are questions that are at the forefront of our minds as we watch the film, and the film has few surprises. The two worlds collide forcefully at critical moments, as Between Valleys tips its hand very heavily by cutting back and forth between the two characters, showing the one to be shaken by events in the other one’s life.

In the end, we do get an answer, but the truth of the story is not really the goal of the director, as by the time we reach the end, we will already have formed a very clear understanding of the notion that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, the character arc is not entirely believeable, but it is certainly more palatable than the two scenes of hysteria that first Antonio and then his wife provoke. These two scenes actually do more harm than good to the characters, as we may easily have empathised with them, had they not wallowed in their grief with such extravagance and persistence.

But Barcinski’s one visual trick that has some weight has to do with the presentation of his close-ups of a model of a landfill, which Antonio constructs with his son. The shots often rack in and out of focus, and although we at first have no idea why such shots were allowed to appear in the film, toward the end of the story, we come to realise the full significance of this approach.

Between Valleys is not an extraordinarily thoughtful film, and its moments of high emotion elicit no such feelings in the viewer, but it is an enjoyable and unsophisticated portrayal of the unexpected course a life can take as the result of tragedy.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

From Beginning to End (2009)

 Brazil

4*
Director:
Aluizio Abranches
Screenwriter:
Aluizio Abranches
Director of Photography:
Ueli Steiger

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Do Começo ao Fim

From Beginning to End is a brave film from Brazil that handles not only the issue of incest, but of same-sex incest, with unbelievable grace and beauty, and were it not for some awkward moments of acting and an overuse of its poetic approach, this could have been a truly breathtaking film.

At times, the events as presented are depicted with such love and tenderness it is difficult not to be moved to tears, despite any misgivings one might have about the makeup of the relationship at the core.

The film, narrated by an adult Thomás, tells of the first few weeks after his birth, during which he didn’t open his eyes until he felt ready. That moment when he decides it is time coincides with a visit by his slightly older half-brother, Francisco, to the hospital, and when Thomás opens his eyes, he looks straight at Francisco.

Six years later, the young boys show a remarkable bond. Although they are stepbrothers and live in Rio de Janeiro with their radiant mother and the younger Thomás’s youthful father, Alexandre, everyone gets along very well, and there is great friendliness between these two parents and Francisco’s father, Pedro, who lives in Buenos Aires.

Luckily for them, such an open and friendly environment does not reject or question their intimate relationship, despite the parents’ suspicions that their sons’ behavior is not something they are used to seeing. But it has to be said that this behavior is heartrendingly beautiful.

Francisco takes on the role not only of older brother, but of caretaker to his brother, whom he showers with love and attention. As Thomás admits on the voice-over, his brother always made sure he was happy, as we can see in a scene where Francisco receives a present and then asks his father whether he brought Thomás a present as well.

We never see the two of them fight and they seem to share not only a bond but a heart and a soul. There is a scene where the 11-year-old Francisco falls asleep on his bed holding the 6-year-old Thomás in his arms that has more emotional resonance than most films about love and intimacy.

The film’s opening shots are long, unedited tracking shots and Aluizio Abranches should be highly commended for his direction of the two boys’ movements in these scenes, as they run through the house playing, being followed by the Steadicam. It’s an approach that is also very effectively repeated during a trip to Buenos Aires during adulthood.

While it is no surprise that the relationship between the two brothers turns physical when they become young men, this physical attraction isn’t always presented on-screen with the same careful approach as during the earlier scenes, and we get some awkward images that resemble soft-core porn and a transition from childhood to adulthood that is anything but smooth. However, this awkwardness is redeemed by numerous moments of endearing delicacy that join Thomás and Francisco over time, and we realise that there lies beauty in a relationship not born out of sex but born out love built up over a lifetime of shared memories.

When two partners are the same age and engage in acts that are pure and consensual, anyone with the faintest of libertarian streaks would agree that there is nothing wrong with them continuing their committed relationship with each other. Incest too often calls up the abhorrent crudeness of young girls and boys raped by their own father, which is something light years removed from the feelings of mutual love, respect and responsibility made evident in From Beginning to End.

Abranches acknowledges that his characters live in a kind of bubble, removed from the rest of the world, by having them mostly interact with each other whenever they are not speaking to their parents, and we start to wonder whether they have any other friends. In a particularly striking scene, when the bubble is about to break, they sit on a rocky wall high up on a hilltop with the Carioca coastline behind them, but it seems like the world behind them is cold, completely blue, filtered off from the contours of their immediate setting.

It is unheard of for a film of this nature to deal with its problematic central issue in this way, and while it steers clear of confronting some of the larger problems this relationship is likely to generate if more people became aware of it, its decision to immerse the viewer in a world of acceptance and understanding is understandable as it succeeds in communicating the strength of the feelings at play and the depth of emotion these characters share.

Elite Squad (2007)

Brazil

4*
Director:
José Padilha
Screenwriters:
José Padilha,
Rodrigo Pimentel,
Bráulio Mantovani
Director of Photography:
Lula Carvalho

Running time: 113 minutes

Original title: Tropa de elite

In a city like Rio de Janeiro, whose police force “protects the corrupt”, especially when the corrupt is one of their own, an incorruptible force of guardians is essential: in this case, such individuals have formed an elite group, trained more aggressively than the Israeli army, that performs the function of watchmen, and it is no coincidence that Foucault is discussed in a sociology class attended by Matias, a talented policeman who will be trained as a member of this “Elite Squad”, or BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais).

In the first scene, Matias and Neto – another policeman and a friend since childhood – are singled out as possible replacements for Captain Nascimento, a member of BOPE whose life has been turned upside down by his continued involvement in their operations; his personal life (he is about to become a father) is straining under the pressure of his life as a special forces policeman and he needs to get out.

BOPE is hardcore and they are physically and mentally as tough as they come, but while these guys can track down and punish the most devious of slum lords, they are clearly filled with rage and the film hints at some of the reasons. There is frustration amongst the most law-abiding policemen that everybody is not fully held accountable, that it is too slow or that it is not strict enough. Some of the policemen see their colleagues turn their job into a way to earn extra money by using their position as a way to extort ordinary individuals – by promising them special protections, for example – and this game with the law has ominous potential: “Those who get paid to uphold the law can also get paid to cut it loose.”

At the centre of developments is an upcoming visit by Pope John Paul II (the film is set in 1997) to Rio de Janeiro: His Holiness decided to stay at the favela of Turano, a notorious slum, so that he can be closer to the poor and destitute, and it is up to the BOPE to ensure that the Holy Father will lose no sleep over his safety in such a poor, crime-ridden area of the city. But the preparations for the visit take a backseat to the stories of Matias and Neto, respectively the brains and the heart necessary to make a good BOPE agent, and the challenge Nascimento faces in deciding who would replace him.

Some of the film’s action scenes are quite shocking – not because of the brutal violence they depict, but because the characters committing these acts are often policemen themselves, who are supposed to uphold the law. In one sequence of events, the endemic corruption on the force is treated with some comedy, as heads butt and we see how quickly chaos can erupt in an environment where bribery is a normal part of the job of being a policeman. But the rest of Elite Squad shows a much darker side of the Rio police: portrayed as a bunch of reckless hooligans, more or less kept in check by the cream that is the BOPE, the latter can also acts like barbarians in the name of keeping order – at one point they prepare to torture an informant by raping him with a broom.

One should be able to get a clearer picture of the two sides that provide the Rio crime scene with such tension. We are informed that peace in Rio “depends on a delicate balance between the ammunition of the scum and the corruption of the cops,” but the film tries its darndest to show that the police’s brutal tactics may be mitigated by the fact that they are ultimately making the city a better place. However, the film doesn’t come close to equalling Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, a film that still ranks as one of the best favela pictures ever made. It always seems like we get an outsider’s point of view of the slums.

Elite Squad is well-made, and both Matias and Nascimento have stories that the viewer wants to follow through with, but the constant voice-over becomes boring, despite its overload of well-formulated bits of information and the apparent (though strictly illogical) omnipresence of its narrator. Followed by Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.

Pixote (1981)

Brazil
4*

Director:
Hector Babenco
Screenwriters:
Hector Babenco
Jorge Durán
Director of Photography:
Rodolfo Sanches

Running time: 128 minutes

Original title: Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco

Pixote is gritty and tough and wholly credible as a faithful representation of the lives of street children in São Paulo. Whereas the title unfortunately focuses on one specific character, the film itself is interested in the larger group of individuals of which the young João Henrique, nicknamed “Pixote” (pronounced “pee-shaw-che”), forms an important part. It is a well-known fact that the boy who played the title character and whose living standards were comparable to those of his character in the film was shot and killed by police in August 1987.

The film’s extradiegetic opening is remarkably simple but entirely appropriate and manages to highlight the urgency of the plight of São Paulo’s street children: Director Hector Babenco, with one of the city’s favelas very visible in the background, speaks directly to the viewers and informs us that stories such as that of the film we are about to watch still happen every day. He even points to a small house where Fernando Ramos Da Silva, the actor who plays Pixote, lives with his family.

Pixote follows the lives of a group of young boys who, having committed crimes, can’t be sent to prison but are locked up in a reform school instead. At 10 years of age, Pixote is the youngest, and during his first night in the dormitory, a few bunks from him, a boy is raped by an oversexed teenager.

The image of Pixote sniffing glue is powerful, and we recognise this character’s desperation in a single shot. When circumstances around him become even worse (at times, the school may be confused for a prison, and a very corrupt prison at that), he decides to free himself from this restrictive environment.

But, as a relative of Pixote had warned him, life outside the school can be even worse than life on the inside. Even though there are a few wonderfully dynamic scenes in which we see the young boys snatch purses and mug unsuspecting seniors of their wallets, their eventual involvement in the world of drug dealing, which they know nothing about, is tense and leads to very bad things.

Pixote is not really the main character, and a title that made it clear that the focus is on the group rather than the individual would have been truer to the spirit of the film. The cinematography is excellent, and the acting is flawless. However, the story does not have the tight focus it could have had if the centres of interest has been more clearly defined. At one point, the film digresses into a musical number that only relates to a single character, who never really features again. However, the themes that the film does raise, including issues of poverty, sexuality and power, are all handled admirably, and it is clear to see why this socially conscious film caused such a sensation when it was first released.

Linha de Passe (2008)

linha-de-passeBrazil
3.5*

Directors:
Walter Salles
Daniela Thomas
Screenwriters:
George Moura
Daniela Thomas
Bráulio Mantovani
Director of Photography:
Mauro Pinheiro Jr.

Running time: 108 minutes

An 18-year-old boy, who desperately wants to be a professional soccer player, and his three brothers in Cidade Líder, a suburb of São Paulo, go through the motions of growing up in this film by one of the country’s most internationally renowned directors, Walter Salles, co-directing with longtime collaborator Daniela Thomas.

The rite of passage (or “line” of passage in the title) that the characters must go through is different for each of them, and while their stories are slow to pick up speed, they all crash over the line in the film’s final act.

The brothers are the soccer-mad Dario, the charming playboy Dênis, evangelical Dinho and cheeky little Reginaldo, much blacker than his stepbrothers, who wants to find his real father. Their mother, Cleuza, is about to have her fifth, who she hopes will be a daughter, and this would be the third time (as far as I could tell) that a child has a different father than those of its siblings. Cleuza is an angry woman, understandably frustrated by her family’s abject living conditions and the apparently carefree attitudes of many of her children.

Dinho has the most visible character arc and is arguably the most likeable of the four brothers. Even though it is still unresolved by the end of the film (most of the characters’ stories seem to continue into uncertainty when the end credits roll), his thoughts are made visible by his actions. When he fancies his brother’s girlfriend – or rather, sex partner – this interest is subtly made evident by his hesitation as well as a beautiful, understated shot in the shower when he presumably tries to wash himself clean of such thoughts.

The other brothers have their own problems while trying to scrape together enough money, or to find themselves a new family, and their different approaches are cleverly stitched together by very good editors Gustavo Giani and Lívia Serpa. As usual, the music, by maestro Gustavo Santaolalla, consists mostly of strings and never takes centre stage. In terms of cinematography, the most exciting scenes are certainly the ones on motorcycles that speed through the sometimes hair-raising traffic of Brazil’s largest city.

Linha de Passe is no Central Station (Vinícius de Oliveira, the boy from the latter, also stars in this film): The lead female character is very unsympathetic, and we never get to know her as well as we can understand the factors that push and pull her sons. Fortunately, although the film’s characters don’t always get what they want, and there is a fair amount of disillusionment, the film itself is never as negative about life as the similarly themed early films of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Isle of Flowers (1989)

isle-of-flowersBrazil
4.5*

Director:
Jorge Furtado
Screenwriter:
Jorge Furtado
Directors of Photography:
Roberto Henkin, Sergio Amon

Running time: 13 minutes

Original title: Ilha das flores

This short film appears to be a documentary, but it doesn’t really matter whether the characters are real individuals or not. The very loose storyline follows the journey of a tomato and examines the implications of human intervention while trying to capture exactly what it is that makes us human. The conclusions are rather pessimistic.

Isle of Flowers is set, if such a simple term may be used here, at a tomato plantation in Porto Alegre, where a worker named Suzuki (the recurring, matter-of-fact narrator informs us that he is Japanese) picks the vegetables. These tomatoes will be sold to a supermarket, where Mrs Anete, a perfume saleswoman, will buy them. When she prepares the tomato soup, she deems one of the tomatoes unsuitable and throws it in the garbage. One of Porto Alegre’s garbage dumps is situated on an island called the Isle of Flowers, where pigs and humans vie for a chance to retrieve items from the garbage in order to feed themselves.

The film’s importance lies not in its ability to trace the very banal journey of a tomato from the plantation to the garbage dump, but in its evocative presentation of human desperation at the heart of consumerism. Isle of Flowers uses the red vegetable as a red herring: The film, via many detours, finally deals with the poor of Porto Alegre who have to scavenge for food; they find themselves, in the scheme of things, situated even lower on the socioeconomic ladder than pigs. Everything has a price and can be exchanged for money, as the film clearly indicates, and since a pig can be bought for food, it is worth more than the poor scavengers, who cannot.

The Isle of Flowers, moving as it does from one train of thought to the next, is comical in its apparent digressions but ruthless in its depiction of the lives of human beings. When mentioning Jews, all we see are images of the Holocaust. A human being is defined, for example, as an entity with a highly developed brain and opposable thumbs. These traits are accompanied onscreen by an image of a mushroom cloud (a consequence of the workings of the brain) and the forbidden apple, picked by the opposable thumbs.

My only qualm with the film is its definition of the family as a unit that consists of a father, a mother and two children. While traditionally true, this convention is purely arbitrary and wholly simplistic. But this flaw does nothing to detract from the film’s enlightening and thoroughly entertaining perspective on the impact of exchange.

The Man Who Copied (2003)

Brazil
3.5*

Director:
Jorge Furtado
Screenwriter:
Jorge Furtado
Director of Photography:
Alex Sernambi

Running time: 125 minutes

Original title: O homem que copiava

André is a photocopier operator, barely out of his teens, who falls in love with the girl living with her father in the housing block on the other side of the street. He is also a single child, living with a single parent – his mother, who spends her evenings in front of the television before shuffling off to bed.

I liked André, and it’s not just because we share a name. He seems genuine, naïve and in love. From time to time, he realises that his prospects don’t seem all that good, but he glimpses bits and pieces of other lives – the lives of the people who come into the shop to have their work photocopied – and wants to work towards a life that provides him with greater opportunities, including the girl, Sylvia.

André makes very impressive illustrations, as witnessed by a handful of animated sequences. But while the film’s first half pulls us in with the main character’s awkward attempts at courtship, the second half loses nearly all credibility with an avalanche of coincidences, and deaths that easily eliminate the complications resulting from these coincidences.

I wanted to like the film. In the role of André, actor Lázaro Ramos gives a steady performance as a young guy who wants to grow up and leave his impoverished surroundings behind. Although he is much better off than the characters of, say, City of God, he lives with his mother, and his job as a photocopier doesn’t exactly charm the ladies he meets at the nightclub. But the second half, while competently shot and executed, is lazy in its story development and leaves the audience feeling cheated.

Many viewers might find the final reel, in which a secret is revealed that goes a long way towards explaining Sylvia’s tolerance of André’s advances (especially in the early stages when he seems to be stalking her), a bit too romantic at such a late stage of the plot. In my opinion, while the film is hurt by the incredible sequence of events in its second half, the last 10 minutes are more or less believable and, more importantly, they represent a state of affairs we want to believe.