'Joaquim': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Pleasingly gritty if inconclusive biopic.

Director Marcelo Gomes dramatizes the personal and political struggles of a Brazilian folk hero in this "tropical Western," a Berlin competition contender.

A national hero in Brazil, Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier was an 18th century colonial foot soldier who turned against his Portuguese paymasters, co-founding an underground rebel group called Inconfidencia Mineira, who plotted to overthrow the occupying powers and establish an independent Brazilian republic. Nicknamed "Tiradentes" ("teeth puller") due to his skills in dentistry, Xavier never got his revolution. Instead he was betrayed, tried and executed, his body quartered and his head mounted on a spike.

This grisly image is how Brazilian writer-director Marcelo Gomes begins Joaquim, with Xavier (Julio Machado) narrating his own cruel fate from beyond the grave like some early Brazilian ancestor of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. It is the first indication that we are not dealing with conventional biopic rules in a film that trades in myth and speculation as much as known historical fact.

Premiering in competition in Berlin this week ahead of domestic theatrical release in April, Joaquim will obviously have strongest appeal among Brazilian and Portuguese audiences, who have grown up with Xavier in their history books, on their screens and even in their street names. But this period action drama could snag special interest in wider markets too thanks to its visual polish and contemporary political resonance.

Joaquim does not attempt to cover Xavier's entire rise and fall. Instead, Gomes concentrates on the crucial period that galvanized his anger against the corrupt Portuguese elites, well-spoken racists and robber barons who habitually treat low-born natives like him as second-class citizens while they asset-strip Brazil's mineral wealth to enrich a faraway European queen.

Gomes and cinematographer Pierre de Kerchove are billing Joaquim as a "tropical Western" and not without reason. Their kinetic, hand-held shooting style gives these historically remote events an agreeably visceral, sweaty, in-your-face immediacy. They also use anamorphic lenses to frame the rocky river valleys where Xavier is sent to prospect for gold, lending the rugged Brazilian hinterland a handsome wide-screen grandeur. Reflections in rock pools and thunderous waterfalls provide sublime snapshots of raw nature.

Like a cross between Che Guevara and Zorro, Machado gives a lusty, gutsy performance that projects Xavier's wounded pride as much as his principled humanity. But Gomes makes a couple of questionable narrative choices, giving his antihero an African slave lover, Zua (Isabel Zuaa), who later becomes a warrior queen in the quilombo movement of escaped slaves. This fanciful fabrication seems designed to boost our slave-owning hero's progressive credentials with modern liberal audiences. The story also ends abruptly at a point long before Xavier's downfall. While Brazilian viewers will probably know what happened next, the rest of us may find this seemingly arbitrary conclusion unsatisfactory.

Gomes partly intends Joaquim to be an origin story for the social and economic divisions that shaped modern Brazil, where old colonial power structures remain submerged in the culture. But his script avoids overplaying contemporary parallels, aside from one of Xavier's rousing speeches about the glorious freedoms of the newly independent English colonies of North America, a utopian republic that he imagines has no further need for guns, armies or imperialist ambition. The irony is laid on thick, a rare moment of audience-nudging levity in a film that is otherwise played straight.

Music is well deployed, but sparingly. A baleful violin acts as counterpoint to Xavier's greatest moment of misguided revolutionary optimism, a case of the score knowing more than the character. Another brief but striking scene centers on an improvised vocal duet between an African slave and an indigenous Brazilian, experimental baby steps toward an entire nation's future musical riches.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: REC Produtores Associados, Ukbar Filmes
Cast: Julio Machado, Isabel Zuaa, Nuno Lopes, Romulo Braga, Welket Bungue, Karay Rya Pua
Director, screenwriter: Marcelo Gomes
Producer: Joao Vieira Jr.
Co-producers: Pandora da Cunha Telles, Pablo Iraola
Cinematographer: Pierre de Kerchove
Editor: Eduardo Chatagnier
Music: O Grivo
Sales company: Boutique Films, Berlin
Not rated, 103 minutes