'Brazilian Western': Shanghai Review
Brazilian filmmaker Rene Sampaio draws from music culture for his stylish crime drama debut.
If someone were to adapt Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” into a film the result might be something like Brazilian Western, a dense and bloody hyper-real crime drama reminiscent at times of City of God, and Pulp Fiction in its patchwork soundtrack. Simultaneously playing with traditional western genre and Brazil’s own outlaw mythology, director Rene Sampaio works from a script by Marcos Bernstein and Victor Atherino, who in turn took Brazilian superstar Renato Russo’s epic rock fable “Faroeste Caboclo” as their source material. Oddly enough it works, as Sampaio, Bernstein and Atherino realize clashes of class, regionalism and race into a fairly conventional crime-romance, proving the familiar isn’t a bad thing when it’s done right.
The strong aesthetic connection to City of God comes as no surprise since that film’s original author, Paulo Lins, collaborated on an early draft of the script. Distributors that found success with God or Elite Squad could do well with this, particularly in light of the possible interest in all things Brazil in the wake of this year’s World Cup.
Brazilian Western unfolds in the 1980s, when the country was in the midst of massive social and political upheaval after decades of dictatorial rule and when corruption and drug crime were rampant. It starts in a suitably remote desert town, replete with wells, cacti, ramshackle buildings and blazing sun. After his mother dies, Joao de Santo Cristo (Fabricio Boliveira, Elite Squad) takes cold-blooded revenge on the man that killed his father, does his time in prison and emerges into a very different Brazil
He heads for Brasilia and once there he looks up his pot-dealing cousin Pablo (Cesar Trancoso), and before you can say “cartel” Joao finds himself embroiled in an increasingly vicious drug war with the unhinged Jeremias (an appropriately manic Felipe Abib) partly stemming from his own decisions, some reluctant, some not. It doesn’t help matters that while fleeing from crooked cops one night after dealing pot to some rich kids for Pablo, he takes refuge with Maria Lucia (Isis Valverde), a white senator’s daughter and architecture student that Jeremias is smitten with. What ensues is a fairly conventional crime melodrama, with double crosses, unhealthy rivalries, noble sacrifices and more bloody revenge.
What makes Brazilian Western more compelling than standard crime fare is the conflicting duality of life woven into the story (into the song?): black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban, working class and ruling elite, from the criminal world and the ordered one. Sampaio is in control of his material enough to never allow any single element feel like it’s tacked on, leaving space for the casual corruption and racism confronting Joao to reveal themselves organically. Most of the disadvantages exist as part of who he is and are quietly summed up when he and Maria Lucia discuss their potential future. He’s a natural born carpenter—and a crack shot—who thinks he and Maria Lucia are almost fated to be together. “The rich design it and the poor build it,” he says cynically, as if he knows that fate is a big joke.
As with most melodramas like this there’s a degrading tipping point that drives Joao off the path of respectability and onto one for vengeance that ends up pretty much where you expect it will. But getting there is the pleasure of Brazilian Western. Cinematographer Gustavo Hadba’s super-saturated visuals are the perfect complement to the heightened reality of this Brasilia, its intensely modernist cityscape being the ideal setting for the story’s romantic tragedy. Boliveira is tasked with carrying the bulk of the narrative (he’s in almost every scene) and he does a suitably stoic job as Joao, keeping his personal vulnerabilities close to the chest and maintaining a reticent distance from everyone around him. When he meets Maria Lucia he makes Joao so reluctant to allow himself happiness it’s heartbreaking. The inevitable final showdown is the film at its most garishly “western,” set at high noon in the primary-colored deserted outskirts against a Morricone-esque soundtrack, loses some of its punch to a brief philosophic epilog that vocalizes some of film’s themes of fate, powerlessness, choice and how they influence each other. Thankfully there are scads of thank yous in the closing credit scroll, which gives enough time to hear “Faroeste Caboclo” in its entirety. That's a good thing.
Production company: Gavea Filmes, Fulano Films
Cast: Fabricio Boliveira, Isis Valverde, Felipe Abib, Antonio Calloni, Cesar Trancoso, Rodrigo Pandolfo
Director: Rene Sampaio
Screenwriter: Marcos Bernstein, Victor Atherino
Producer: Rene Sampaio
Executive producer: Bianca De Felippes, Marcello Ludwig Maia
Director of photography: Gustavo Hadba
Production designer: Tiago Marques
Costume designer: Valeria Stefani
Editor: Marcio Hashimoto
Music: Philipe Seabra
Sales: Imagina Sales
No rating, 105 minutes