Brazil is a country in turmoil notwithstanding the stature of hosting soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and now the Summer Olympics beginning August 5. Its more than 200 million people are suffering through a period of intense social conflict, the consequence of deep economic recession, corruption, and political upheavals in which the nation’s first female president Dilma Rousseff has been suspended facing possible impeachment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the main host city of Rio de Janeiro, the famous ocean-side metropolis where extremes of luxury and misery coexist. With a world media spotlight on Rio over the next month, here are a few noteworthy films that capture different sides of the Brazilian experience.
Exploring a dark side of preparations for these major events is Australian filmmaker Dan Jackson’s documentary In the Shadow of the Hill (http://intheshadowofthehill.com/) that was shown at Toronto’s HotDocs festival in May. A particular focus is on the crowded, impoverished and crime-ridden favela (slum neighbourhood) of Rocinha, the biggest in Brazil. Life has always been difficult for its residents, terrorized by armed drug gangs and almost equally fearful of police and law enforcement. Government “pacification” programs designed to assert control over and clean up such areas have exacerbated tensions leading to more accusations of brutality, abduction and torture. A very disturbing pattern emerges. In the film it’s alleged that some 38,000 people, mostly young black men, have disappeared in Rio from 2007-2013. According to Jackson: “If you look at a map of all the pacified communities in Rio, they have an inherent link to either the World Cup or the Olympics in terms of infrastructure they planned on building . . . (and) public access highways.”
A gripping drama of dangerous intrigue and corruption set in a Rio favela setting is Stephen Daldry’s remarkable 2014 feature Trash (http://www.focusfeatures.com/trash), a U.K./Brazil coproduction based on the novel by Andy Mulligan. It’s had very limited theatrical distribution but is available on video.
In the opening scene a young man, José Angelo (Wagner Moura), is trying to make a frantic escape from his apartment as a police squad closes in. Fleeing for his life he flings a large wallet into a garbage truck. The next day we are in the world of trash pickers combing through a huge landfill (a reality superbly observed in Lucy Walker’s 2010 documentary Waste Land: http://www.wastelandmovie.com/). Working together are three young teenage boys, Rafael (Rickson Tevez), best friend Gardo (Eduardo Luis), and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) whose home is a sewer. Rafael’s discovery of the wallet sets in motion an escalating series of events that culminates in a high-stakes climax. Inside the wallet are money, a key, and photographs of a young girl (it’s Angelo’s daughter) — one of which has numbers written on the back. When police come in force to the favela offering a reward for the missing wallet, Rafael suspects there are bigger reasons that make it so valuable. He’s determined to keep the wallet and to solve the mystery of its contents.
As the police step up their inquiries, pushed by aggressive inspector Frederico (Selton Mello), attention falls on the boys. What they have are street smarts and assistance from an American Catholic priest, Father Juilliard (well played by noted Catholic activist Martin Sheen), who has been working in the favela for decades, as well as from a volunteer teacher, Olivia (Rooney Mara). The key leads to a locker in a train station and a letter addressed to a man being held in prison.
Through Father Juilliard and Olivia, access is obtained to the prisoner Clemente (Nelson Xavier), the uncle of José Angelo, who turns over a Bible that becomes another key in unravelling links to corrupt mayoral candidate Antonio Santos (Stepan Nercessian) for whom José had worked before absconding with crucial incriminating evidence — a list of bribe takers and a fortune in payoff money. It will come as no surprise that the police under Frederico are working for Santos, ready to resort to threats and even murder to get what he wants.
The race is on as to who will find the evidence first. In this fast-paced pursuit — which recalls at times a Brazilian version of the 2009 Oscar best picture Slumdog Millionaire — the non-professional actors who play the three boys are outstanding. It’s clear which side is favoured by justice and the protection of religious faith. As Jay Weissberg wrote in Variety, the film could have been called “Our Lady of Trash.”
In the world of sport, no Brazilian is more renowned or revered than soccer star Pelé, a hero to a country where soccer is tantamount to the national religion. The directing team of brothers Jeff and Mike Zimbalist dramatize the extraordinary story of Pelé’s early rise to greatness in Pelé: Birth of a Legend (http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/pele-birth-of-a-legend ) which has had limited release following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on Oct. 23, 1940, in the state of Minas Gerais, growing up in an impoverished household. His father Dondinho (Seu Jorge) was a lowly janitor whom he sometimes helped and his mother Celeste (Mariana Nunes) cleaned houses for the richer whiter folk. Edson, nicknamed “Dico” by his parents, was one of the “shoeless ones” who developed his passion for the national sport on the streets. Like everyone he was devastated by Brazil’s loss in the 1950 World Cup final, boldly promising his father that one day he would help Brazil win the World Cup.
Dico, played as a boy by Leonardo Lima Carvalho, had to overcome many hardships, racial discrimination, and the tragic death of a playmate. He stole peanuts for money to obtain castoff shoes. Mangoes were the “ball” used to practice with his dad. Dico was looked down on and made fun of by wealthier white kids led by the snobbish José and his friends on a well-equipped soccer team with a winning record. They came up with the “Pelé” moniker, intended as a pejorative term of ridicule. The tables were turned when Dico led a team of outcasts like himself to challenge the favoured rich boys’ club through sheer drive and skill during a championship tournament attended by a professional scout. The name Pelé stuck, transformed into one of admiration for his exceptional talents on the soccer pitch.
At age 15 Pelé (Kevin de Paula) was invited to try out for Santos in a professional league, working his way up to the main squad. His coaches, however, were concerned about his unorthodox “ginga” style developed on the streets, so different from the classical defensive European approach to the game. Ginga, with its acrobatic aerial manoeuvres and passing, traced roots back to Brazil’s African slave heritage and vibrant spirituality. Its fluid fighting style was thought to be undisciplined and unprofessional, no match for the strategic ground game of the dominant Europeans. When Pelé made the national team at 16, along with his boyhood nemesis José (Diego Boneta), the head coach Feoloa (Vincent D’Onofrio) forbade any resort to ginga.
Although Pelé suffered a knee injury, he travelled with the Brazilian team to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. No one expected Brazil to do well but they reached a semi-final against France. At a crucial moment, José withdrew himself from the game with an encouraging exhortation to, in effect, let Pelé be Pelé. It was the turning point for the 17-year-old phenomenon, then the youngest ever player at this level. Playing with uninhibited prowess, he scored a record three goals; then in the final the winning goal against the heavily favoured home team Sweden. Brazil’s pride in itself had been restored through sweet personal vindication for Pelé and for his exciting contribution to making soccer the “beautiful game.” The film ends on this triumphant note heralding a brilliant career.
Pelé: Birth of Legend isn’t a great movie. For one thing, everyone speaks English, no doubt for commercial reasons to avoid subtitles. That sacrifices authenticity in favour of a melodramatic mythologizing of his story to go along with the bits of archival footage, and a brief appearance by Pelé himself. The joy of watching the real Pelé play throughout his career would make a more satisfying experience. Nonetheless, with Olympian attention focused on Brazil, and all the attendant controversies, conflicts, doping scandals, etc., it’s good to be reminded of the pure power of sport to rise above the most challenging circumstances. In Pelé, Brazilians have a true exemplar of the meaning of beautiful games.