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One of the best-known carnival parades of the hero of Trinta went under the name of Rats and Vultures, Leave My Fantasy Alone, and that’s exactly what director Paulo Machline has respectfully done with his subject, Joãosinho Trinta. The much-revered Trinta died in 2011, his reputation sealed as one of Rio de Janeiro’s — and Brazil’s — foremost carnival parade designers, a high profile job in the samba world. Now he and his fans get their own movie — a simple, good-hearted and uni-dimensional affair which carefully sidesteps both controversy and depth in order to cement the Trinta myth a little further, but which feels dull as a result.
It was warmly received following its premiere in Rio de Janeiro, so Trinta’s offshore marketing team, whilst secretly knowing this is one for the home crowd, will be keeping a careful eye on those niche markets where the global phenomenon that is samba is strongest.
Not quite a biopic, much of the film is dedicated to Trinta’s real-life struggle before the 1974 carnival to bring something groundbreaking to the Rio parade. (Famously, he succeeded, and carnival was never quite the same again.) The film opens with the sacking of current director of the Salgueiro samba school Pamplona (Paulo Tiefenthaler) by Germano (Ernani Moraes) to make way for Trinta (Matheus Nachtergaele, his distinctive features most familiar to offshore viewers from City of God).
A flashback to 1960 shows us Trinta’s rise from secretary to ballet dancer for the Rio company, continually being accused along the way of being “queer”, a word his provincial brother-in-law can barely bring himself to utter. At only 5’ 2”, he realizes that he’s only ever going to be a ballet backliner, and in 1973 he’s invited by Germano to become take over the Salgueiro samba school parade. The six months before the parade occupy more than half the running length, counted down somewhat ploddingly by an on-screen counter in an entirely unnecessary attempt to increase the suspense.
Inspired by the myths and legends of Maranhao, in northern Brazil, Trinta decides to unashamedly camp it up with a piece called The King of France on the Haunted Island: “the people like luxury,” he famously said. “The only ones who like misery are intellectuals.” The four-person scriptwriting team does well to remain faithful to the spirit of the preparation for carnival whilst keeping it simple enough for beginners to follow.
What Trinta brought to his designs was a new flamboyance, in the film making him the object of much criticism from the traditional-minded, machista Tiao (Milhem Cortaz, from Elite Squad): like everything else, samba was once, and still largely is, a male-dominated arena. Short, gay, and artistically ahead of his time, Trinta indeed had the odds stacked against him, as represented in a range of secondary characters: but those odds are the sole dramatic focus of a script which never achieves depth, subtlety or insight.
Nachtergaele does good work to create a plausible hero, giving the Brazilian audience what they want and expect without lapsing into pàrody. The fact that he has closely studied Trinta’s gestures and facial expressions is clear from the final footage of the real Trinta in his later years. But what we don’t get is any sense of the inner life: one explosive late scene apart, in which he suddenly becomes radically foul-mouthed, he is perpetually good-humored, quietly letting his genius speak for itself. Faithful though it may be to the truth, and respectful of his memory, it doesn’t make for deeply engaging drama.
Set design, on a historical film about a set designer, is always going to be subject to close scrutiny. Daniel Flaksman took over a second strand Rio samba school for the shoot, which apparently looks similar to a first-strand samba school in the 60s, full of echoes and darkness. given that so much of the film is set there, authenticity is crucial. Other period detail has lovingly been recreated, as have the prize-winning 1974 float and costumes.
But what can’t be recreated, on the available budget, is the carnival itself; and what’s missing from Trinta, strangely, is much dance. Local samba aficionados will be able to fill in the missing steps themselves, but offshore audiences coming to it will be disappointed if they’re expecting a celebration not only of the man but of the dance he visually transformed.
Production company: Primo Filmes
Cast: Matheus Nachtergaele, Milhem Cortaz, Paolla Oliveira, Fabricio Boliveira, Paulo Tiefenthaler, Ernani Moraes
Director: Paulo Machline
Screenwriters: Claudio Galperin, Paulo Machline, Mauricio Zacharias, Felipe Sholl
Producers: Matias Mariani, Joana Mariani, Paulo Machline
Executive producer: Eliane Ferreira
Director of photography: Lito Mendes da Rocha
Production designer: Daniel Flaksman
Costume designer: KIka Lopez
Editor: Oswaldo Santana, Fernando Honesko
Composer: Andre Abujamra
Sales: Fox Film Brazil
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