**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Felipe Abib, Antonio Calloni, César Troncoso, Marcos Paulo
screenplay by Marcos Bernstein and Victor Atherino
directed by René Sampaio
by Jefferson Robbins If a few things fall too neatly into place in René Sampaio's Brazilian Western--like beautiful Maria Lúcia (Isis Valverde) jumping into bed with fugitive João (Fabrício Boliveira), who just held her at gunpoint in her own bedroom--well, it's a fable. That's meant literally, since the film is adapted from a megahit ballad of roughly the same name: Legāio Urbana's nine-minute barn-burner of calamity, bloodshed, love, and redemption spoke to something in the Brazilian psyche in 1987, charting João de Santo Christo's fatal misadventures with the corrupt forces that kept a boot on the underclass. Sampaio's adaptation has a lot to live up to in that respect, as well as in honouring the western genre to which the title nods. It winds up a Leone-ian Scarface of sorts, although the stakes are different--pot instead of coke, infatuation rather than the will to power, with imbalances of class and race at the forefront.
Brazil had barely emerged from twenty-one years of military dictatorship when "Faroeste Caboclo" was born from the pen of songwriter/bandleader Renato Russo. The English title isn't a direct translation: caboclo, broadly, is a term for "native Brazilian." It's freighted, though, as it can refer to either a citizen of mixed white and indigenous Indian heritage, or to an Indian who's acculturated into the white majority. Where does that leave João, then, discriminated against in both film and source ballad "because of his class, his colour?" Brazilian Western takes the song's basic storyline, but launches with João incarcerated in Brazil's rural Northeast for the murder of the cop who killed his father, rather than for simple delinquency. It's a dramatic choice that gives João a track record of vengeance that will come to bear later. Removing himself to the nation's capital, Brasília, he become the only character of colour in the cast--and throughout, he's the target of vicious racial epithets and abuse. His relationship with Maria Lúcia, the bourgeois white daughter of a senator, is defined by their differences, and when vicious drug dealer Jeremias (Felipe Abib) grows jealous, racial hatred plays into his efforts to remove João from the picture.
Delicately shot and acted though not terribly complex, Brazilian Western comes off a bit featherweight--we know the steps because we've heard this song before, figuratively speaking. What sets it apart is its sensitivity to setting and class. Victor Atherino and Marcos Bernstein's script takes pains to locate João's tragedy in the early-'80s, when everything changed for Brazil--João goes into prison under one system of authority and emerges under another. When he heads to the seat of government to try to build a new life, he's forced to seek charity from his disreputable cousin, Pablo (Cesar Troncoso), in Ceilandia, a lower-class district specifically created to house the poor. It could easily be the setting of A Fistful of Dollars. Sampaio lenses the modernist-Brutalist skyline of Brasília with a sense of marvel as João first arrives, and foreboding once everything goes downhill. With its marble slab columns and concrete plazas, such architecture tends to downplay the human while celebrating the society as a whole. (Maria Lúcia, tellingly, is an architecture student.) Jeremias has ties to both the drug underworld and the police/military, which tend to shade into each other in dictatorships and post-revolutionary societies.
The cast is game and makes nary a misstep: Boliveira is worthy of the gritty close-ups demanded of him, while Valverde breaks hearts without words when Maria Lúcia must abandon João in order to save his life. They seem to understand that they're here as part of an act of iconography. Sampaio's directorial choices aim for homage and sometimes misfire. There's a loving shot à la The Searchers as Maria Lúcia wanders out through a doorway, doubled with a second shot through the back window of her VW Bug that clumsily crops off her head. (Likewise, the sex montages position themselves as artful but play as somewhat laughable.) Joao's fate is telegraphed, if not outright spoiled, in the first five minutes--it's an artsy flash-forward you hope will yield to revised interpretation as the film goes on, but doesn't. If Brazilian Western doesn't hit with the epic strength of its source ballad, there's enough ambition in Sampaio's debut feature to recommend him and his team as filmmakers to watch.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shout! Factory, Criterion's scrappy, kitsch-hustling cousin, puts out Brazilian Western in a 2.35:1, 1080p presentation (misidentified as 1.78:1 on the jacket art) that's bathed in atmosphere. From his bedroom to the clay-dirt football pitch of his final duel, João's life is shaded by degrees of red that are warm and true to life, and his nighttime ventures in Brasília--under the lights that charm him upon his arrival--glow with rough urban fluorescence distinct to South America. There's a contrast between this and the patches of blackness the lights fail to drive off, which crush in a way that seems meant to heighten the drama. Sampaio loves close-ups, and this crystalline transfer loves his cast, displaying health and natural texture in every face. Soundwise, I really like the (many) gunshots that rattle off in the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, sounding less Foley'd and more organic and ratchety than what's commonly heard in cinema. Dialogue is clear and central enough to let a non-Portuguese speaker lean into the flow and cadence of the language, and the bursts of music are concert-level quality. (Should you for some reason want to hear the film in lossy stereo, a DD 2.0 track is also on board.) The English subtitling seems a bit hurried and at times contradicts the filmed material--Maria Lúcia is rendered as "Maria Lòcia," for instance.
Extras are minimal but feel appropriate to the piece. "Making of Brazilian Western" (24 mins., HD) assembles a behind-the-scenes peek that roughly follows the chronological procession of the finished film. Sampaio and his collaborators address the challenges and pitfalls of turning a beloved song into a movie, lamenting that fabulous lyrics do not a screenplay make. Valverde--like Boliveira, a television star before this screen turn--charms me with her metaphorical ways of describing her character. Taking a risk on João, she says, is like jumping into the ocean to swim out to a strange ship: "She could break a leg, she could find a shark, screw all that--she swims for the boat." A standout in this mini-doc is art director Tiago Marques Teixeira, who contributes greatly to the look of the film and establishes unique palettes for the core trio. A two-minute HD theatrical trailer uses percussive cutting and a funk-punk soundtrack to suggest something more kinetic than the movie we got; and a two-minute HD teaser is much the same, only with in-character narration by Boliveira.