'Greta': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
They don't want to be alone — or not seen.

Brazilian director Armando Praca's feature debut stars Marco Nanini as a male nurse who takes in a criminal so he can offer a hospital bed to a friend.

An aging male nurse in Fortaleza, in northeastern Brazil, takes in a wounded stranger so he can give the man’s bed to his transgender friend who needs to be hospitalized in Greta, the restrained yet impactful directorial debut from Armando Praca. Looking at marginalization through several lenses — including age, sexuality, gender and criminal life — this is a thematically ambitious but narratively very intimate and compassionate story of human relationships. The fact that, despite its wide-ranging concerns, it always feels so modest is both a major feat of screenwriting and something of a box office concern. However, it should certainly put Praca on the map as an impressive director of actors and a solid filmmaker in his own right after his experience working as an assistant director or location scout for household names in the Brazilian art house scene such as Karim Ainouz (Futuro Beach). 

Gay nurse Pedro (veteran Marco Nanini) is way past retirement age but still gets himself to the hospital every day, where he takes pleasure in taking care of others. His avuncular instincts also have him look after his neighbor and friend, Daniela (Denise Weinberg), a transgender woman in late middle age whose permanent use of lipstick and blue eyeshadow can’t hide the fact she’s not entirely well. She has only one kidney left and suffers from chronic kidney disease, which leads to an unexpected hospitalization that throws Pedro for a loop because there’s not a single bed available.

Never above giving anyone a helping hand, Pedro selects a good-looking patient from his ward, gives him a free handjob and some money for a taxi and subsequently offers the now-vacant bed to Daniela. But she refuses to stay at the men’s ward, which is understandable seeing how she’s likely fought all her life to finally be accepted and seen as a woman. 

Indeed, Praca, who wrote the screenplay based on a play by Fernando Melo, doesn’t need to sketch in much of these characters’ backstories. Their actions in the present suggest not only a long history of trying to reach out and help one another, but also hint at past moments of pain that never really went away. Praca is aided immensely by the lived-in performances from Nanini, a renowned TV star in Brazil more famous for his comedy chops, and Weinberg, a cisgender actress recently nominated for an International Emmy for her role on the Brazilian series Psi. Their characters’ rapport is more based on looks and body language than dialogue, and Praca knows just how to frame and shoot the frayed yet loving relationship of these two elderly queer people who might not be in love in the amorous sense but who, for all intents and purposes, are there for each other until death do them part.

That said, sometimes their characters need to compromise a little if they want to get ahead in life. So when a bloodied stranger is brought in at the hospital under suspicious circumstances, the supposedly morally upright Pedro helps to smuggle out the man who might be a criminal on the run from either a gang or the police. As a result, Daniela can take his bed in the men’s ward. The only problem is that the man in question, who calls himself Jean (Demick Lopes), still needs looking after, so Pedro takes him home.

What follows is hard to describe but absolutely fascinating to watch. There’s something of the Stockholm Syndrome that sets in at Pedro's home, though Praca refuses to point out who might be the captor and who could be the victim. Jean and Pedro also become sexually involved, but is one paying the other in order to keep their trespasses quiet, are both under that impression or is this an instance of two men simply falling in lust in unusual circumstances? Is Jean even queer, or is he a cunning killer who figures it’s a small price to pay for a hideout that comes with a nurse who can tend to his wounds? 

This midsection is by far the film’s strongest, and Praca makes the most of the ambiguous rapport between Pedro and his charge, who is perhaps just over half his age. The uncertainty concerning their needs and motives allows the film to examine the nature of relationships and human behavior in ways that are fascinating and true. “Happiness isn’t always fun, Pedro,” Daniela tells him at one point. At first sight, this might sound enigmatic, but Praca and his actors manage to suggest that there are many reasons people come and often try to stay together, however incompatible they — or their motives — might be. A bedroom conversation between Pedro and Jean before the latter leaves is so full of naked feeling it becomes almost impossible to remember Jean is also a serious criminal, so thoroughly has he been humanized.  

Greta’s last act isn’t quite as strong, as Praca somewhat clumsily tries to wrap up most of his storylines. There’s a scene of gay lovemaking between two hot-and-bothered, in-the-prime-of-their-lives supporting characters that will please queer audiences for its laissez-faire attitude toward nudity and erections but that has no real narrative necessity. It is all the more jarring because the casual-feeling nude scenes between Pedro and Jean, with their bodies showing the ravages of age or their tough lives or both, are much more telling and touching in this respect. (One assumes Daniela’s body is similarly marked by her life, but it is thankfully mostly kept offscreen, thus avoiding reducing trans issues to matters of the body.)

A scene at a nightclub involving Daniela also feels like it belongs in a movie from a different era, a once-obligatory stop that doesn’t add all that much to this particular story, which registers as more modern in its storytelling approach. And more in general, Daniela’s storyline functioned as a starting point that draws the viewer in early on but gets watered down too much as Jean and Pedro’s relationship takes center stage. One thing that is noteworthy about Daniela is the casting: Praca has taken an unusual approach to the debate about how to cast transgender roles and actors. Here, Weinberg is a cisgender actress playing a transgender woman, though there's a small but crucial role for transgender actress Gretta Sttar as a cisgender woman in the film's closing scenes. 

The few things that don't work in the story, however, are minor elements in a film that so daringly explores marginalized lives and bodies, especially within the context of present-day Brazil. Though the pic was no doubt conceived before the recent election of far-right and vehemently anti-LGBTQ president Jair Bolsonaro, it does now play like a daring act of commanding the spotlight for these stories from the margins of Brazilian society. None of the characters are perfect, but all of them are vividly alive and trying to live with dignity in the circumstances they find themselves in. “I want to be alone,” says Pedro’s favorite diva Greta Garbo — actually the Greta of the title — in her famous line from Grand Hotel, but all of the characters in this particular story can only continue to live by forging connections with others around them rather than withdrawing into their shells.

The immensely talented, Fortaleza-born cinematographer Ivo Lopes Araujo (Tattoo) shot Greta on the digital Arri Amira camera, though it looks like beautifully textured 16mm, especially in the film’s frequent penumbral scenes, recalling the glories of celluloid in another nod to Garbo. The absence of a musical score adds a welcome verite edge.  

Production companies: Carnaval Filmes, Segrado Filmes, Mozambique Audiovisual
Cast: Marco Nanini, Denise Weinberg, Demick Lopes, Gretta Star
Writer-director: Armando Praca 
Producers: Joao Vieira Jr, Nara Aragao, Armando Praca
Executive producer: Mauricio Macedo 
Director of photography: Ivo Lopes Araujo
Production designer: Diogo Costa
Costume designer: Thais de Campos
Editor: Karen Harley
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: M-Appeal

In Brazilian Portuguese
97 minutes