Heleno: Toronto Review

A powerful, impressionistic, black-and-white portrait of a self-destructive Brazilian footballer that achieves real poignancy in his downfall.

José Henrique Fonseca’s film makes a striking and moving portrait of a long-ago Brazilian football star whose temper always got the better of him.

Heleno de Freitas was a Brazilian footballer, a striker with a furious one-man game — not at all a team player — who scored 209 goals for Rio’s Botafogo club, mostly with head. In the ‘40s, he was a matinee idol, popular with everyone but especially women. José Henrique Fonseca’s film Helenopaints an indelible, highly impressionistic portrait of the mercurial star. If you want to know the details about Heleno’s fabled career, you’ll have to Google him. Fonseca’s film strives rather to give you a sense of the man and his times, not of his career or biography.

Fonseca aims high. Shooting in lovely black-and-white and on real locations around Rio that catch the flavor of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the co-writer and director unmistakably emulates Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull. The two athletes share similar qualities in their pig-headedness and self-destruction; the poetry of Scorsese’s film may somewhat elude the Brazilian filmmaker, but Helenois an impressive work and certainly elevates Fonseca’s game and that of its brilliant star, Rodrigo Santoro, into world cinema status.

The film deserves major festival exposure and theatrical play dates. One suspects this will happen largely in soccer-manic countries and, unfortunately, not in the U.S. Who knows though, maybe we’ll get lucky.

As a matter of fact, there isn’t that much actual soccer in the movie. You get much more locker-room tantrums, nightclub romances and bedroom athletics. And possibly more fits then you care to witness in the isolated sanatorium where Heleno spent his final years.

The film moves back and forth in time in a kind of memory game. It catches glimpses of the rise and fall of a star in the fabulous ‘40s, where Rio is still a clean, under-populated urban oasis from world wars and chaos, where football is king and Heleno one of its major stars; in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s when the star is in decline due to smoking, addiction to ether and advancing syphilis; and then in the sanatorium where if he recognizes his ex-wife and the best friend who eventually married her, he goes into a tizzy.

The movie is lit and shot (beautifully by Walter Carvalho) to look like a Hollywood movie of those eras where everyone dresses for the clubs and sports scenes have quick, propulsive excitement. The sanatorium looks like something John Frankenheimer might have directed, sparing no details to get the misery of the place just right.

Santoro (Carandiru,Behind the Sun) makes it clear that a ruthless kind of anger rules this man’s life. He plays mad, he lives mad and he certainly dies mad. Heleno declares that all he cares about in life are “goals, slim waists and Cadillacs,” and that about sums it up. While apparently born to wealth — the film avoids family scenes— Heleno’s whole existence is dedicated to playing football. It’s as if he has a special relationship with the ball and the net and nothing else. Teammates are only people to scream at and ridicule if they don’t pass him the ball just right. Heleno is a disturbed man long before syphilis ate away his brain.

Alinne Moraes plays Heleno’s gorgeous wife Silvia while Angie Cepeda plays his exotic mistress, a singer named Diamantina, who no doubt stands in for the many other women Heleno wooed and bedded without much difficulty. Each is desperate to claim his devotion, as their love for him is more than he deserves. He remains tantalizing out of reach though, initially because of his dedication to womanizing and later his violent temper turns them, and nearly everyone else other than a loyal nurse, away.

Heleno de Freitas (1920-1959) never attained the glory he sought. World War II caused the cancellation of the World Cups of 1942 and 1946. By the ’50s, he was a shadow of himself, hanging on for a final game in 1951. This might have been the cause of much of his anger and hotheaded play but the film isn’t trying to psychoanalyze the man. Rather it very much wants to give a sense and an image of a man consumed by the very passion that inspires him. Indeed this passion causes him to refuse medication for his disease since he believes it will sap his energy on the pitch. In the end, he only cares about the game. As he wastes away in the sanatorium, he dreams he is still out on the field, still closing in on the net and still scoring goals.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: RT Features/Goritzia Filmes, OGX & Downtown Filmes
Cast: Rodrigo Santoro, Alinne Moraes, Angie Cepeda, Eron Cordeiro, Mauricio Tizumba, Duda Ribeiro
Director: José Henrique Fonseca
Screenwriters: José Henrique Fonseca, Felipe Bragança, Fernando Castets
Producers: José Henrique Fonseca, Rodrigo Teixeira, Eduardo Pop, Rodrigo Santoro
Director of photography: Walter Carvalho
Production designer: Marlise Storchi
Music: Berna Ceppas
Costume designer: Rita Murtinho
Editor: Sergio Mekler
Sales: ICM International Creative Management
No rating, 116 minutes.