It’s called “Brazilian Western,” but director René Sampaio’s debut feature film could better be described as something of an amalgamation of genres.
The movie, set in 1980s Brasilia and loosely based on a popular Brazilian folk song of the same name, tells the story of an outlaw named João (Fabrício Boliveira) who moves to the bustling city to start his life anew. At first, things seem to go well: his distant cousin Pablo (Cesar Troncoso), a local drug pin, graciously takes him in. But then, a drug delivery on behalf of his cousin goes horribly wrong, putting him on the bad side of not only the corrupt cops but also the crazy drug dealer Jeremias (Felipe Abib) who has them all in his pocket.
So, here we have a period piece, something of a crime story, a narco movie reminiscent, narratively, of films like “Scarface.” It’s also a romance: on the run from the police, João meets Maria Lúcia (Isis Valverde), an architecture student and the daughter of a senator, who lives in the nice part of town, worlds away from the life that João has always known. And yet, they embark upon a perfect love affair, fueled by the excellent pot supply João helps his cousin grow and sell, until Maria Lúcia finds out he deals drugs and leaves him, while rival drug dealers and dirty cops finally exact revenge on him for encroaching on their turf.
If it sounds at all like there’s too much going on here for one film, don’t worry, there isn’t. One of the strengths of “Brazilian Western,” besides its sumptuous and almost dreamlike quality of capturing a perfect time capsule of the Brasilia of yesteryear, is its ability to juggle its several plots, subplots, and flashbacks with relative ease. Its other biggest strength is lead actor Boliveira, who plays what had the potential of being one of those overly stoic, mysterious types with a very appealing mixture of charm and gravitas. The chemistry between he and Valverde is electric, intimate, and real, rather than a mere plot contrivance to further João’s story along.
The Western genre, the crime rags-to-riches genre, even the romance drama are all turned on their heads. João is an outlaw, something of a man with no name, a crack shot, a man with good intentions who always seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Though the principled, mysterious new stranger in town is an obvious trope, its the several OK Corral-esquel gunfights in the movie that make the biggest allusions to the Western genre, and are the most exciting to watch, with a final standoff toward the end being particularly engaging.
A lot more could be said of this movie’s good points: a great soundtrack filled with 80s new wave and punk, more than capable supporting players (particularly Abib whose performance is absolutely crazy), impressive costume design and art direction, etc. Some could also be said of its weaker points: its tendency to drag a bit in some of its quieter moments, a few montage sequences that are ultimately superfluous, and so on. But what’s really worth talking about when it comes to this movie is its underlying themes, and what it really has to say about Brazil.
Because João is a black man, Maria Lúcia white, and their doomed relationship merely stands as a representation of the racial politics and realities of Brazil, realities that have ostensibly lead to his down and out existence. It’s significant that, save for a few flashbacks with his mother and father, João is the only black person we ever really see on screen, navigating cautiously through a white world that is either bewildered, amused, or disgusted by him. He’s content, at first, to get by in this world of double standards and injustices, until one particular horrifying moment of brutality that nearly robs him of the dignity he’s fought so hard to protect.
Westerns are often about good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, but here the struggle is deeper. Call it a reach, but by the end of the film, the sense isn’t that João has been fighting not for what is right, but fighting for his right to personhood.
“Brazilian Western” premiered on Netflix (streaming) yesterday, February 27, 2017.
Watch a trailer below:
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.