When Brazilian screen veteran and Narcos star Wagner Moura began work on Marighella more than five years ago, it was a nostalgic period piece about a dark chapter in his country's history. But since the shocking election victory of Brazil's current president Jair Bolsonaro, a pro-Trump ultra-conservative who expresses open admiration for the torture and murder policies of the former military regime, Moura's directorial debut has acquired a timely urgency that few could have foreseen. Some local commentators are even predicting domestic censorship problems ahead for this marathon biopic, which is world premiering out of competition in the Berlinale this week.

Set at the start of the 21-year military dictatorship ushered in by a CIA-endorsed coup in 1964, Marighella dramatizes the struggles of Afro-Brazilian Marxist author and politician Carlos Marighella, who took up arms against Brazil's increasingly authoritarian police state in the late 1960s. Inspired by Mao and Castro, Marighella's actions and writings would in turn influence revolutionary groups across Europe and America. Driven by strong performances and dynamic action sequences, Marighella is gripping and technically slick, but frustratingly light on context for non-local viewers. More superior thriller than illuminating history lesson, it is set to air as a TV miniseries in Brazil, but could play as a long single film in other markets, as it did in Berlin.

Headlined by an impressively meaty, mature star turn from Brazilian screen and music icon Seu Jorge (City of God, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). Moura's film is a stylistic cousin of other recent retro-revolutionary biopics, notably Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) and the Oliver Assayas-directed Carlos (2012). But Marighella lacks the more ambivalent historical hindsight of those productions, loading the dice a little too heavily in favor of its charismatic antihero, whose complicated legacy is celebrated but never fully examined here.

Moura opens with a bravura action set-piece in which Marighella's revolutionary cell hijack a train carrying weapons, a heart-pounding thrill ride filmed in kinetic close-up in an unbroken hand-held shot. This is a strong opening hook, pure old-school Hollywood in its punchy dramatic impact. The timeline then rewinds from 1968 to 1964, soon after the military coup. In a touchingly intimate scene reminiscent of Moonlight, Marighella takes his 11-year-old son to the beach in Rio de Janeiro, a tender farewell before sending the boy off to live more safely with his mother in the northern province of Salvador. Soon afterwards, Marighella is cornered in a cinema by regime enforcers, shot in the shoulder and arrested.

Freed from jail soon afterward thanks to legal pressure from old friends in the media and political establishment, Marighella resolves to adopt a more extreme policy of armed struggle against the state. In the process he is expelled from the Communist Party and forms his own small group of gun-toting guerrillas and student radicals, Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN). This ragtag pocket army try to foment revolution in both urban and rural areas, robbing banks and tossing hand grenades into government buildings. But they are hampered by various factors, including government media censorship and a notable lack of popular support for their cause.

Fictionalizing most of his composite secondary characters, Moura chooses to concentrate on the last 18 months of Marighella's life, from his formation of the ALN to his death in a police ambush in November 1969. After a spectacular setup, the story resolves into a cat-and-mouse chase between the guerrillas and their gothically evil nemesis Lucio (Bruno Gagliasso), a racist, homophobic, sadistic detective modeled on the notorious Brazilian police deputy Sergio Paranhos Fleury, who led the search for the real Marighella.

By condensing Marighella's life into its final dramatic act, Moura disappointingly misses the chance to cover some colorful backstory and crucial political detail. His family background and formative early spells in jail, long before the 1964 coup, are absent from this story; likewise are his rise through the Brazilian Communist Party leadership ranks, his trips to Cuba and China to observe their revolutions first-hand and his authorship of the highly influential book Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Even some dramatic key events from his last months, such as the ALN's involvement in the kidnapping of U.S. Ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, are relegated to oddly incidental background subplots.

Given its potentially inflammatory subject matter, Marighella is also strangely light on political or moral complexity. While Marighella and his gang occasionally lock horns over the bloodthirsty ethics of violent resistance (“an eye for an eye” is their motto), Moura presents their actions in uncritically heroic terms, including the cold-blooded execution of a U.S. “imperialist” enemy in front of his 6-year-old son. Every American character in the film is presented as a Machiavellian cheerleader for the regime's policy of torturing and murdering dissidents, which the director depicts in graphic and often uncomfortable detail.

Meanwhile, Moura paints Marighella himself as a tirelessly self-sacrificing martyr for liberal democracy and free speech, even though his real Marxist-informed ideology was more astringent than that. By modern standards, many would deem him a terrorist. The filmmaker arguably does Marighella's legacy a disservice by simplifying him into a humanitarian freedom fighter battling against one-dimensional fascist enemies.

But once you accept its binary us-and-them worldview, Marighella works fine as an exciting and highly assured debut, with a terrific ensemble cast at its heart. Playing 10 years older than his real age, Jorge is magnetic onscreen, wordlessly conveying Marighella's acceptance of his tragic destiny even when sporting a series of ridiculous wigs. Credit is also due to veteran smoothie Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, oozing reptilian charm as Marighella's suave deputy, and Bella Camero, who will one day be surefire casting for an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez biopic. And while Gagliasso's performance as Lucio is pure stage villain, he delivers it with an agreeably baroque relish reminiscent of Gary Oldman in full scenery-munching pomp. Not exactly subtle, but just about understated enough for Moura's tub-thumping hagiography.

Production companies: O2 Filmes, Globo Filmes
Cast: Seu Jorge, Adriana Esteves, Ana Paula Bouzas, Bruno Gagliasso, Bella Camero, Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, Carla Ribas, Charles Paraventi, Guilherme Ferraz, Guilherme Lopes, Henrique Vieira Frei, Herson Capri, Humberto Carrao, Jorge Paz
Director: Wagner Moura
Screenwriters: Felipe Braga, Wagner Moura
Producers: Bel Berlinck, Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Wagner Moura, Fernando Meirelles
Cinematographer: Adrian Teijido
Editor: Lucas Gonzaga
Production designer: Frederico Pinto
Music: Antonio Pinto
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Out of competition)
Sales: Elle Driver

155 minutes