SIFF 2004:  BRAZILIAN HIT MEN, COMING OF AGE IN CHILE AND FALLING OFF THE WAGON, AMERICAN STYLE Image

Check out KJ’s previous SIFF 2004 reports>>>

Unlike many of this year’s festival films exploring naively ambitious young people breaking away from dead-end routines (“Maria Full of Grace,” “B-Happy”), “The Man of the Year” follows an indifferent sociopath (Murilo Benicio) and his reluctant climb up the Brazilian social ladder as a celebrated hit man. Maiquel’s upward mobility doesn’t come from any conscious effort to change. Rather, his success is generated through coincidence and good luck.

Maiquel’s transformation into “The Man of the Year” stems from a cold-blooded murder. A lean, swaggering punk, he wins over the heart of shapely hairdresser Cledir (Claudia Abreu) by dying his locks blonde. However, the cosmetic alteration prompts another street tough to tease and belittle this light-haired hooligan. Humiliated by such verbal abuse, Maiquel promptly guns down his critic.

A somewhat unmotivated soul, the avenged murderer awaits an inevitable life behind bars. He’s surprised, then, when local business owners and law officers congratulate Maiquel. His victim, it turns out, was a scourge of the community, and the unpopular man’s absence is welcomed by virtually the entire area. Instead of being locked up, Maiquel is put on a pedestal.

In fact, Maiquel’s dirty deed is so praiseworthy that he is soon called upon to perform similar death-dealings. A creepy dentist named Dr. Cavalho (Jorge Doria), smarting over the rape of his daughter, asks the now-famous killer to rub out her attacker. Suddenly, we’re in Coppola-land, where damaged men gather in dark rooms and make offers that can’t be refused. Over the course of “The Man of the Year,” Maiquel becomes pawn to an ever-growing legion of bitter retribution-seekers. Through it all, he begins to experience pangs of guilt as such illicit work begins to effect his wife, child, and “Bill,” the family’s lovable pet pig.

Moral ambiguity runs deep throughout the film – there are no clearly defined heroes or villains here. Dr. Carvalho, for instance, is an upstanding pillar of the community, but he runs his elitist operation with a Mafia don’s gaudy, vicious hands. This is hardly a Rotary club operation or County Club clique. In systematically rubbing out lower-class hoodlums via Maiquel’s bloody handiwork, Carvalho becomes more irredeemable than those he so enthusiastically hunts down.

Director Jose Henrique Fonseca chooses vibrant neon lighting to accent his scenes – beautifully filmed slices of gritty Brazilian life. Favoring a sleeker, more elegant look than fellow countryman Fernando Meirelles (Oscar-nominated for last year’s “City of God”), Fonseca also tells a smaller, more self-contained story. “City of God” was a scathing statement concerning the entire favela subculture surrounding Rio de Janiero. “The Man of the Year” is more familiar, missing the kids-with-guns angle that made Meirelles’ film so unique. “Goodfellas,” “Scarface,” and early John Woo have all been here, done this.

Even so, the promising new director has crafted an attention-grabbing, visually lush crime drama enhanced by Rubem Fonesca’s shrewd, funny dialogue. Maiquel’s conversations with a shockingly cynical, female-hating boss are priceless. “After marriage,” he insists of women, “they turn into fat, vindictive cows.” A pet pig named after Bill Clinton provides additional laughs. There’s irony in Maiquel’s reluctance to roast his pork pet – initially provided for food – even as he nonchalantly whacks each successive human being on his lengthy contract list.

Proving that “City of God” was no fluke, “The Man of the Year” marks an exciting explosion in Brazilian filmmaking. You might not appreciate its self-centered, jaded antihero, who wraps up his problems with a shockingly matter-of-fact solution. But you’ll have a hard time taking your eyes off the screen as Maiquel’s soul is signed, sealed, and delivered to a place down south.

“B-Happy” is one of many coming-of-age films appearing at SIFF, this time concerning a 14-year old Chilean girl named Kathy (Manuela Martelli). Living in a ramshackle house falling apart at the seams with a hardworking mother and chemical-gobbling brother, Kathy’s bleak life is full of disappointment and void of opportunity. Her father (Eduardo Barril) is a criminal miscreant and veteran of the local criminal justice system, bouncing in and out of jail.

Things go from gloomy to critical when the youngster’s long-suffering mom (Lorene Prieto) contracts a respiratory infection and dies abruptly. Fanning the flames of romance with a hunky wannabe crooner, her brother (Felipe Ríos) jettisons himself from the family home as well, leaving Kathy to fend for herself. The downward spiral continues as a neighborhood storeowner demands sexual favors of this silently brooding adolescent, who eventually spends time in juvenile detention and on the streets. Prostitution, it would seem, is one of the few reliable trades for an unskilled Chilean girl without any anchoring family support or life experience.

Sound depressing? Incredibly, director Gonzalo Justiniano blends Kathy’s trials by fire with enough earthy humor and hope to keep “B-Happy” from becoming a downer. A perpetually optimistic teacher – dancing on what appears to be a Prozac-induced cloud of denial – encourages Kathy to “Be Happy” despite the blight of poverty and decay enveloping them. The contrast makes for an effective running joke.

In a stunning star turn, Martelli (Best Actress Winner at the 2003 Havana Film Festival) crawls into her heroine’s increasingly hardened skin and skillfully conveys Kathy’s gradual transition from complacent passivity to fiery independence. A tender loss-of-virginity scene is filmed between her character and an admiring schoolboy (Ricardo Fernández), but it’s far from the tragic, “domineering tough guy pushing himself on reluctant damsel” stereotype that is often seen. Kathy is clearly in control, exclaiming that if she cannot choose her country or family, she can at least decide on her first love. She’s too young to be entering these waters, but we can see her emotional logic.

Justiniano, who spent $600,000 dollars and six weeks to shoot “B-Happy,” takes chances by ending each scene with a pronounced fade to black. This radical editing scheme gives the effect of watching a slide show or flipping through old family snapshots. Dark spaces frame each transition and accent the arc of Kathy’s unfolding history.

“B-Happy” begins with Martelli’s naïve, teenaged protagonist proclaiming, “I’m not afraid of anything.” During that first reel, we don’t buy such bravado talk. By film’s end, however, when she again verbalizes such fearlessness, we believe her. Like Catalino Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace,” Martelli depicts the loss of innocence – and the attainment of personal strength and survivor’s savvy – with passion and conviction.

Other SIFF outings follow less assertive subjects, whose tragic natures incite us to scream, “Won’t you ever learn?” Filmed in a breezy 24 days, “Down to the Bone” walks us through the muted motions of Irene, a hollow-cheeked, anemic waif fighting off cocaine cravings. Her supplier is reluctant to provide this needy soul with more nose candy, unless Irene can cough up the greenbacks she owes him. When this addicted mother peddles her son’s birthday money in an effort to score more of the Devil’s Dandruff, we know that an even bumpier road awaits her.

Director Debra Granik avoids the wild camera tricks and whiplash editing of “Requiem for a Dream,” wrapping her film in a grungy, digitally shot sparseness. There’s no romanticizing the junkie lifestyle here. Each bleak frame appears to have been washed in turpentine. This compliments Vera Farmiga’s complex lead performance – Granik provides no cosmetic props for the actress to hide behind, and she’s forced to dive in naked, without a net. Looking frail and frayed, Farmiga is up to the task.

In fact, Farmiga is so convincing in the role, our sympathies become torn as we watch Irene sink deeper into a quicksand of bad judgment, impulsivity, and limited options. She entertains skimming money from her workplace till, cheats on her husband, and falls off the wagon. After awhile, this lost cause loses our compassion.

Which, perhaps, is the point of “Down to the Bone.” Unlike the whitewashed, sunny depiction of addicts portrayed in such films as “28 Days,” this stripped-down slice of the straw ‘n needle lifestyle dares to tell it like it is. There is no pandering, and no demands that we like the characters onscreen. Ultimately, “Down to the Bone” also offers Irene what might be the road to redemption. But there’s a painful price tag attached.

Stay tuned for further updates from SIFF 2004. Until then, let’s have some Back Talk>>>

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