Castanha: Copenhagen Review

Somberly stylish calling-card from the latest in the current slew of promising younger Brazilian directors.

Cabaret-performer João Carlos Castanha plays himself in Brazilian director Davi Pretto's feature-length, genre-blending debut.

Layers of artifice multiply to sometimes illuminating, sometimes distracting effect in Davi Pretto's Castanha, a character-study of a middle-aged Brazilian performer, which provocatively defies fiction/non-fiction categorization. Having premiered at Berlinale's Forum earlier this year, this journey into the nocturnal demi-monde of Porto Alegre has been steadily picking up festival-bookings--including a North American bow in the 'Art of the Real' program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center--and will continue to pop up, especially at LGBT-themed events, over the coming months.

It's a quietly ambitious debut for 26-year-old writer/director Davi Pretto, whose chosen subject-matter and approach sometimes recalls that of Portuguese master Pedro Costa. Careful attention is directed to those eking out a living on society's margins--the principals here aren't poverty-stricken, but are certainly a long way from wealthy. 52 at the time of filming, Joao Carlos Castanha lives in a high-rise apartment in Brazil's tenth-biggest city with his elderly mother Celina and their almost incessantly yapping--but seldom glimpsed--dogs.

A veteran suppporting/bit-part actor of stage and screen--he has half a dozen IMDb credits to his name spanning 1985-2010--Castanha now seemingly earns the bulk of his income in gay nightclubs such as the enticingly sleazy 'Eroticos Videos'. After dark, this unassuming, diminutive chap, who could pass for the late Lou Reed from certain angles, dons a Louise Brooks wig, shimmering costume and chiaroscuro makeup to become viper-tongued mistress-of-ceremonies Maria Helena Castanha, with "all her beauty, sensuality, malice and perfume."

The nocturnal demi-monde provides welcome respite from Castanha's health worries, career discontents and domestic pressures, each of which contribute elements of mainly low-key drama to what's otherwise a level-eyed scrutiny of quotidian activities. Castanha and his mother are evidently essaying very lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, but the crucial secondary 'character' of Celina's grandson Marcelo, a drug-addicted thief, is, as the end credits reveal, played by actor Gabriel Nunes.

The fact that we're far from the realm of straightforward verite is signalled from the striking first moments, as a blood-drenched, naked Castanha is seen stumbling down a road at night; a similar dream-like/horror-movie sequence featuring his mother appears much later, just before the Marcelo subplot veers into noir-ish, even melodramatic territory. This slightly awkward interpolation of narrative conventions points to Pretto's relative inexperience, but there's no mistaking the empathy with which he views the two main protagonists, each of whom are inescapably beset with preoccupations of mortality. A ruminative, deliberately elliptical and slightly alienating enterprise, Castanha intrigues and absorbs on a scene-by-scene basis, even if it's ultimately a shade too evasive and elusive to fully come into focus.

Venue: CPHPIX, Copenhagen, April 11 2014

Production company: Tokyo Filmes

Cast: Joao Carlos Castanha, Celina Castanha, Gabriel Nunez, Francisco Jairo da Silva, Ze Adao Barbosa

Director/Screenwriter: Davi Pretto

Producer: Paola Wink

Director of photography: Glauco Firpo

Production designer: Richard Tavares

Editor: Bruno Carboni

Music: Diego Poloni

Sales: FiGa Films, Los Angeles

No MPAA rating, 95 minutes