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On the border between Brazil and Paraguay, the residue of centuries-old conflict persists, playing out among motorcycle gangs and love-struck teens in Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! Though its dreamlike images have a certain pull, the dialogue and fractured narrative of writer-director Felipe Bragança’s first film tend to echo the ham-handed poetry of its title.
The threatened survival of indigenous culture is a powerful theme, and could draw further interest after the picture’s Sundance bow, but like most everything in the feature, it’s treated in a way that’s more showy than illuminating. With its uneven performances and purposeful touches of theatrical artifice, Alligator Girl is finally more distancing than involving.
Bragança’s screenplay was inspired by Curva de Rio Sujo (Curve of a Dirty River), a 2003 novel by Brazilian writer Joca Reiners Terron, and the story he tells is divided into sections with chapter headings. The central thread is a spin on Romeo and Juliet, with Brazilian boy Joca (Eduardo Macedo) enchanted to the point of obsession with the slightly older, 14-year-old Guarani girl Basano (Adeli Benitez), who unsmilingly declares herself the Tattooed Queen of the Apa River.
The river is the dividing line and the meeting place between the two cultures. The dead bodies that float by and the sword that Joca retrieves from its depths recall not just recent political turbulence in the region but the 19th-century war that decimated Paraguay. For Basano, who spurns the advances of her cousin Alberto (Márcio Verón) and has no interest in “anything with anyone,” Joca’s love represents a particular danger, because to join him on the other side of the Apa would mean forgetting her identity, her people and her language.
Joca’s older brother, Fernando, resents their mother (Cláudia Assunção) for bringing them to this remote region after she left their landowner father (Leopoldo Pacheco). Fernando is played by Cauã Reymond, a star of Latin American TV and cinema, in the film’s most nuanced and assured performance. But though he’s easily more convincing than the film’s young nonprofessional actors, the character himself feels generic, his trajectory familiar.
Fernando belongs to a motorcycle gang led by the grandiose Telecath (Marco Lóris), a half-Guarani mechanic who instills lyrical notions of purpose in his followers. “We are gods,” he tells them. In the Calendar Gang, which speeds through the night in rumble-like races against a Guarani bike gang, Fernando’s handle is December. At home, he and Joca call each other Mr. Clark and Mr. Wayne, as in Superman and Batman. With his nods toward the tribal animosities in American teen movies and superhero tales as well as in Shakespeare, Bragança attempts to tie together age-old, universal struggles in a new poetic landscape. But the pieces don’t fuse, just as the theatrical tableaus in which he sometimes arranges his performers look good but accomplish little else.
Glauco Firpo’s cinematography is alive to the terrain, whether he’s shooting a night road, the charged solitude of Fernando’s father’s farm, or a moonlit idyll beneath a constellation of fireflies. Visually, the film suggests the memories and history that the characters merely declaim.
Production companies: Duas Mariola Filmes, Globo Filmes, Canal Brasil, Revolver Amsterdam, Damned Films, Mutuca Filmes
Cast: Cauã Reymond, Eduardo Macedo, Adeli Gonzales, Marco Lóris, Zahy Guajajara, Márcio Verón, Cláudia Assunção, Leopoldo Pacheco, Ney Matogrosso
Director: Felipe Bragança
Screenwriter: Felipe Bragança
Producers: Marina Meliande, Marcos Prado
Executive producers: Eliane Ferreira, Marina Meliande
Director of photography: Glauco Firpo
Production designer: Dina Salem Levy
Costume designer: Ana Carolina Lopes
Editor: Jon Kadocsa
Composer: Baris Akardere
Casting: Giovani Barros, Felipe Bragança
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