Last night I saw "Brasilia 18%" at the Tribeca Film Festival. I had been expecting something really unusual and politically hard-hitting, given the status of director, Nelson Pereira Dos Santos as a pioneer of Brasilian Cinema Novo and the critical acclaim for many of his previous films, which include "How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman," "Rio 40" and "Barren Lives." When Peter Scarlet got up and talked about it so enthusiastically before it began, I was ready to be wowed. Unfortunately, my friends and I all found "Brasilia 18%" to be a somewhat sleepy political thriller. The most interesting aspects of the film to me were the musical score and the sense of foggy ambiguity that surrounds all of the main character's experiences and some of the "backroom" scenes of political movers and shakers, but this foggy ambiguity was also a weakness; it made the film fail to connect emotionally.
The movie worked best on an allegorical level; the central conflict is whether Medical Examiner Bilac will sign a false identification of a body who the government claims is a missing congressional aid, Eugenia. If he does so, he will be helping the corrupt government hide a budget scandal. He can tell quite early on that the dead body he's to identify is not Eugenia. In fact, he comes to believe that Eugenia is still alive and in hiding. As he's making an effort to maintain his integrity, he dreams of his dead wife (the angel), fantasizes about the possibly dead, possibly alive Eugenia, (the elusive truth) and is seduced by the beautiful Georgesand, (devil) a hard drinking senator's daughter and member of congress. All of this seems like it might make for an interesting movie, but with such simple divisions of good and bad, and a lackluster main character whose actions seem quite mysterious and unmotivated leave you wondering "what did I miss?"
Dos Santos wants to emphasize the character as "lost" but I'm not sure how that lends itself to a hard-hitting critique of contemporary politics. Instead of provoking us with moral questions, or showing us his interest in the truth, or giving us someone with whom to identify common human experiences, Bilac bumbles around with the tempting "devil" character, Georgesand, and even his hallucinatory experiences with phantom women come across as somewhat inexplicable. While Dos Santos may be aiming for a kind of Godardian (or Brechtian) detachment, "Brasilia 18%" is no "Contempt" - a film that managed to make an interesting conceptual point through its complicated and fascinating characters.
Overall, while I didn't find this to be a bad movie, I didn't think it was great. This is unfortunate, because the director really was attempting to make a major comment about corruption in Brasil and to show the decadence of those in power. The lifeless quality of this movie may speak to the difficulty of making a really good political fiction film, and the double difficulty of trying to make that film with some big artistic effort at ambiguity and/or the "alienation affect." The films that I was most reminded of while watching this one were "Memento" and "Syriana" - and yes, "Contempt"- (as in, hmm, now "Contempt," THAT was a good movie.)
- but it wasn't as good as any of those on any level. I don't know if there was a lot lost in translation, but the movie just didn't work.