As a child in Brazil, Daniel Rezende was obsessed with television. His friends were more interested in playing soccer or going swimming, but he was drawn to the magic he saw onscreen — and he was deeply curious about what happened offscreen. When he watched TV hosts, he wanted to know “as soon as the camera would shut off, what is this guy doing? Where does he go?” he recalls. “I was always asking those questions.”
So when Rezende discovered the story of actor Arlindo Barreto, who portrayed Bozo the Clown, the host of the 1980s Brazilian version of the hit American children’s show, he instantly knew he wanted to make a film about it. That film is Brazil’s official entry in this year’s foreign-language Oscar race, the effervescent Bingo: The King of the Mornings, starring popular Brazilian actor Vladimir Brichta.
“Making this movie was a way for me to go back to my eyes as a kid thinking this, and now me as an adult trying to answer those questions,” Rezende says.
An accomplished editor with more than 15 features under his belt — including 2001’s City of God, for which he received an Oscar nomination, 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries and 2011’s The Tree of Life — Rezende had already been moving into directing, helming episodes of two Brazilian series: HBO’s The Man of Your Life and Netflix’s The Mechanism. He was searching for the right project for his feature directorial debut when producer Dan Klabin told him about an article he had read in the newspaper. It was about Barreto, who found success onscreen as Bozo in the 1980s but who lost control of his life. After spiraling into drug addiction and alienating his son, Barreto — who has a cameo in the film — eventually cleaned up, became a pastor and used his clown persona as part of his ministry.
“I finished the article, and I called [Klabin] and I said, ‘We’re going to make this movie,'” Rezende recalls. “I found the character, the elements that I was looking for … a guy who lived many lives in one — that was amazing. A guy who’s trying to find his recognition as an artist, trying to find his place in the spotlight, and when he does, nobody knows who he is, and a connection between father and son.”
Instead of faithfully depicting Barreto’s life story, Rezende chose to create a fictionalized account to maintain creative freedom. His protagonist, Augusto Mendes, is a caring father, a soft-porn performer and the son of a faded theater actress. Augusto is endearingly naive in his relentless pursuit of artistic recognition, which he finally gets when he lands the role of Bingo the clown. But his contract obligates him to keep his identity a secret and, conflicted by his undercover fame, he turns to drugs and alcohol and grows apart from his son.
“We wanted to create an antihero,” Rezende says. “We wanted to create someone you root for even if he’s doing the worst things. For us, Augusto was a Don Quixote — he is so obsessed, he is so blind, looking at the light. He was taught by his mom that he needs applause and recognition to be an artist otherwise he wouldn’t find a place in this world as an artist.”
Complete with cocaine-fueled party scenes and a soundtrack featuring Echo & the Bunnymen and Devo, the film is steeped in ‘80s pop culture, which sets it apart from typical Brazilian fare.
“Pop culture in Brazil: it’s a subject that our cinema doesn’t look at very often,” Rezende says. “We usually make comedies, which are usually very popular, or we make dramas with social or political or economic [issues], so many problems we have in our country unfortunately. But usually we don’t look at our pop culture, and I thought we had a project that could be a character-driven film that will entertain you. You’ll have fun but also go into a dark path.”
Bingo is also unlike many Brazilian movies in that it combines comedy and drama. It was director Fernando Meirelles, with whom Rezende had worked on City of God, who initially helped Rezende dial in the tone of this ambitious first feature.
“Fernando said, ‘It’s not a drama and it’s not a comedy — it’s a tragicomedy,’ which is something that Brazil does not do very often,” Rezende says. “It was hard for us, like how do we do this?
“He was the first one who said, ‘Don’t try to make it a comedy or a drama. Try to combine those and make a rise-and-fall rock star film. With a clown. For kids. Who does cocaine,'” he adds, laughing. “You always try to make movies that more people can see of course, but if one person goes home, and the next day the movie is still with this person — if that happens with only one person, it was worth it.”