Bye Bye Brasil (Carlos Diegues, 1979)
Roger Ebert gave out far more four-star reviews than I give five-star reviews (he rated on a four-star scale). I have always assumed this is because Ebert saw more movies in a year than I see in five, and had been doing it for decades longer by the time I started being a critic. But four-star films was still a pretty small ratio to all films, and also still, some of the films to which he gave four stars I find utterly mystifying. The most recent befuddling Ebert four-star pick to cross my eyes is Carlos Diegues’ 1979 absurdist drama Bye Bye Brasil. I’ve seen the film referred to as Bergmanesque; I didn’t get that at all. To me, there’s an aspirant-Jodorowsky feel to the movie, but Diegues (Orfeu) doesn’t delve as far into the magical-realist world as does Jodorowsky, nor are his characters as finely-honed; I get the feeling often, watching this, that Diegues wanted his characters to be as nuts as those in El Topo (or, with the benefit of hindsight, Santa Sangre), but that he was also trying to keep one foot firmly grounded in the real world. That’s a delicate balance. To Ebert, obviously, and other reviewers who sing the film’s praises, Diegues managed that balance well. I didn’t think so.
Plot: Ciço (Fábio Júnior in his only feature appearance; he has been working steadily in television since the early seventies) is young, footloose, and stuck with his family and pregnant wife Dasdô (Kabbalah‘s Zaira Zambelli) on a rural Brazilian dust farm. After seeing a show and becoming infatuated with exotic dancer Salomé (Chega de Saudade‘s Betty Faria), he announces his intention to leave home and join Carnival Rolidei, a small travelling carnival, in whatever capacity they will have him; he tells Dasdô she can go home or come with him, and her reaction is one of the film’s best scenes. The two of them plead their case to Lorde Cigano (José Wilker, recently of Giovanni Improtta), the leader of the small troupe, and are accepted, Ciço as an accordionist, Dasdô as a cook, and the four of them, along with troupe strongman Swallow (Príncipe Nabor in his screen debut; he would make only one more film), begin a journey into the Amazonian rainforest that wants to be described as hallucinatory, and perhaps more importantly aims at botht he comedic and the scurrilous.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Diegues is walking a number of fine lines here, and whether the viewer sees this film as a triumph or as a failed experiment will rely on how well the viewer feels Diegues treads either side of those lines. When it comes to the hallucinatory/depressing line, I feel the need to invoke another, far more recent, and very successful attempt at the same trick: La Balade de Triste Trompete, Alex de la Iglesia’s 2010 look at a circus troupe in Francisco’s oppressed Spain. de la Iglesia treads that line with a masterful step, creating a gold standard against which to measure other films that have tried it. (A more popular, but almost as successful, recent film that does the same thing is, of course, del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno.) Placed up against it, the seams in Bye Bye Brasil become obvious, especially in the final third of the film; can’t get into that without spoilers, of course, but the longer the movie goes, the less absurdist and more slice-of-life it becomes, and a seedy slice of life it is.
I usually know within a few minutes of a movie’s ending what rating it’s going to get, though at times I change it half a star either way a couple of days later, after it’s had some time to stew in my head. Bye Bye Brasil was an exception to this; I could make equally good cases for everything from two stars to three and a half based on various aspects of the production. There are some scenes that border on the perfect (as an example, I mentioned our main characters deciding to leave the farm towards the beginning); on the other hand, there are others that are just howlers (the entire sequence in the disco about thirty minutes from the end). The acting is generally quite good, but there are some places where it’s good enough to make the rest of the film pale in comparison (the scene just after the disco sequence stands out, perhaps because of proximity—it is both the best-acted and the funniest in the entire movie). The cinematography is gorgeous, but I think of it here the same way I think of it in Nollywood movies—when the basic scenery around you is so beautiful, you’d have to work hard to mess up the cinematography. And while it may be cruel to say, but the casting of Betty Faria in the seductress role here was a fine bit of work indeed; she is made up in such a way as to seem aggressively plain but overdone, a temptress in name only, which makes Ciço’s continuing infatuation with her after he and his wife join the troupe pleasantly befuddling. I kept going back and forth with it, and ultimately decided to split the difference. It is certainly worth watching, but my gut reaction is that every viewer is going to feel different about this movie; how much you like it will depend on a number of factors more personal than technical. You do owe it to yourself to find out. ** ½