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A bittersweet road movie about pan-generational conflict in contemporary Brazil, Father’s Chair is a charming, engrossing and visually glossy debut feature from veteran TV and commercials director Luciano Moura. This fractured family drama made its US debut in in the World Cinema competition strand at Sundance, but fell between the cracks, garnering just a handful of (mostly positive) reviews. That version now appears to have been a work in progress, since the film had a slightly longer running time and a new Portuguese title for its rapturously received domestic premiere at the Rio Film Festival last week.
Father’s Chair boasts a producer credit for City of God director Fernando Meirelles and a headline performance from Brazilian screen superstar Wagner Moura, setting up expectations of a classy collective effort. It certainly has sufficient technical polish and emotional weight to join the long line of recent Brazilian features earning international crossover success. The presence of Moura, who has a growing global profile thanks to his starring role in Brazil’s box-office-busting Elite Squad thrillers and his upcoming Hollywood debut opposite Matt Damon in Elysium, may help lure foreign distributors and subtitle-friendly audiences alike.
Moura plays Theo Gadelha, a doctor in the middle-class suburbs of São Paulo, who is too absorbed with rage and self-pity about his imploding marriage that he has lost all emotional connection with his sensitive 15-year-old son Pedro (Brás Moreau Antunes). Pompous, pudgy and initially resistant to audience sympathy, Moura’s nuanced character here is impressively remote from his hard-ass police chief in Elite Squad. One weekend, Pedro pulls a scary act of revenge on his bickering parents, acquiring a horse by sleight of hand before setting off alone into Brazil’s rural hinterlands. Theo and his semi-estranged wife Branca (Mariana Lima) are suddenly jolted out of their bitter pre-divorce battles as the father sets off to find his wayward son.
With its jumpy camerawork and moody ambient-rock score, the first act of Father’s Chair feels like the dread-filled set-up to a nightmarish abduction thriller. But the tone then shifts fluidly from fractious domestic melodrama to something more like magic realism. In a series of picaresque and mostly comic vignettes, Theo’s journey brings encounters with shanty-town sages and hitchhiking stoners, a kindly ferryman who lives aboard a floating house, a crazed tractor driver with a morbid gear of City Hall bureaucrats, an auto mechanic with a taste for hand-drawn pornography, and other eccentrics. Each relates their positive impressions of Pedro, who passed along the same route a day or two before, unexpectedly reawakening Theo’s long-dormant sense of parental pride.
As he journeys deeper into the highly photogenic highlands around São Paulo, Theo’s odyssey begins to assume an allegorical dimension, reconnecting him not just with his son but with his wider family roots, his half-forgotten past and his nation as a whole. Meanwhile his escapades become ever more bizarre, from confidently delivering a baby at a hippie music festival to walking away from a major traffic accident almost unscathed. This sentimental journey feels like a western-like fable at times, with inescapable echoes of John Wayne in The Searchers – the film’s revised Portuguese title, after all, translates as “The Search”.
Father’s Chair stretches credulity in the final act, with too many coincidental collisions and an overly neat resolution that verges on cloying sentimentality. But these are minor indulgences in an otherwise charming and confident debut. For most of its running time, Moura’s unorthodox celebration of family values is full of delightful wrong turns, subtle performances and gently uplifting observations on random human kindness.
Venue: Rio Film Festival
Production companies: O2 Filmes
Cast: Cast: Wagner Moura, Mariana Lima, Brás Moreau Antunes, Lima Duarte
Director: Luciano Moura
Writer: Elena Soarez, Luciano Moura
Producers: Fernando Meirelles, Andrea Marato Ribiero
Cinematography: Adrian Teijido
Editor: Lucas Gonzaga
Music: Beto Villares
Sales company: O2 Filmes
Rating TBC, 96 minutes
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