Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica (Era uma vez eu, Verônica): San Sebastian Review

Veronica Still - H 2012

Veronica Still - H 2012

Strikingly impressive on every level, Marcelo Gomes' snapshot of modern urban life - as seen through the sharp eyes of a Brazilian woman - is one of the year's best South American films.

Hermila Guedes plays the title role in Brazilian writer-director Marcelo Gomes's character study.

Brazil's Marcelo Gomes leaps to the front rank of South American filmmakers with his sophomore feature Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica (Era uma vez eu, Verônica), a superbly sensual character study of a young woman navigating emotional and professional crossroads. Built around a stunning central performance by Hermila Guedes, it premiered at Toronto before landing five major awards at Brazil's national film festival in Brasilia and then nabbing a special mention in the Horizontes Latinos section at San Sebastian.

Despite a cumbersome-sounding English-language title, extensive further festival play is both assured and emphatically deserved for this Brazilian/French co-production. Occupying the more accessible end of the auteur spectrum - we're not really a million miles away from, say, Bridget Jones's Diary - it could plausibly obtain arthouse distribution overseas. At home, Guedes' prominence in last year's box office smash Federal Bank Heist - the third biggest homegrown hit of 2011 - certainly won't do any harm, and winning Brasilia's audience award is another positive omen.

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Thirty-two-year-old Guedes may currently lack the superstar status in Brazil enjoyed by actresses from telenovela soaps, but is well known to moviegoers for Karim Aïnouz's Suely in the Sky (2006) - a.k.a. Love For Sale - which, like Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica, focused closely on a young woman's sexual and personal development. Guedes had previously appeared in a supporting role in Gomes' picaresque, 1940s-set debut Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures (2005), which played at dozens of film festivals worldwide.

Gomes and Aïnouz then teamed up for 2009's semi-documentary travelogue I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You with disappointingly arch results. But Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica confirms northeastern Brazil - birthplace of the legendary Glauber Rocha - as a hotbed of cinematic talent, just as fertile as southern cities Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Actors Wagner Moura (Elite Squad), Lázaro Ramos and João Miguel, plus directors Sergio Machado, Claudio Assis and Kleber Mendonça Filho are spearheading this exciting nordestino wave, with Mendonça Filho's current festival sensation Neighboring Sounds making the biggest international waves.

Both Neighboring Sounds and Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica take place in the teeming coastal industrial metropolis of Recife, defining their characters by very specific geographic, economic, social and architectural contexts. And both films feature extravagantly bearded veteran W. J. Solha in key supporting roles: here he's Zé Maria, who lives with his twentysomething daughter Veronica (Guedes) and follows her ups and downs with pride and concern. Veronica works in the psych department of an overstretched public hospital, and spends most of her days listening to accounts of her fellow Recife residents' mental problems.

But Veronica's trickiest patient is herself: she conducts daily sessions in which she examines her motives and neuroses, speaking into a dictaphone. "Can't you stop thinking just for one moment?" asks her on-off boyfriend Gustavo (Miguel, co-lead from Cinema Aspirins and Vultures). "No, I can't" she responds - and it's Gomes' achievement as a scriptwriter that he creates and develops such a believably complex and intelligent protagonist, facing up to and articulating universal insecurities in a world of increasingly challenging turbulence.

Cerebral and analytical she may be, but Veronica is also a full-blooded young woman who delights in the windblown, sun-kissed expanses of an otherwise depressingly rundown Recife's beach and sea, and who hurls herself into physical pleasures with carnal abandon. Crucial to the picture's success in this regard are the immersive sound-design by Waldir Xavier and the Brasilia-awarded soundtrack by Tomaz Alves Souza and Karina Buhr, which makes judicious use of Zé Maria's beloved, carnivalesque frevo music.

The Brasilia jury also rightly recognized the contribution of cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr., whose hand-held images - as briskly assembled by editor Karen Harley - impressionistically capture the smudgy, blurry intensity of Veronica's exhilarated escapes from daily routine. It's no coincidence that Aspirins DoP Pinheiro also shot the similarly outstanding Alice's House (2008) for director Chico Teixeira - which did for São Paulo what Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica now does for Recife, simultaneously conveying the vividness of scruffy urban backdrops and the irrepressible vivacity of a unique, unorthodox heroine.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival (New Directors), September 28, 2012.

Production companies: Rec, Dezenove
Cast: Hermila Guedes, W. J. Solha. João Miguel, Renata Roberta, Inaê Veríssimo
Director / Screenwriter: Marcelo Gomes
Producers: Sara Silveira, Maria Ionescu, João Vieira Jr.,
Executive producer: João Vieira Jr.,
Director of photography: Mauro Pinheiro Jr
Production designer: Marcos Pedroso

Costume designer: Beto Normal
Music: Tomaz Alves Souza, Karina Buhr
Editor: Karen Harley

Sales agent: Urban Distribution International, Paris
No MPAA rating, 88 minutes