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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Bond of Brothers
by Donald Levit

Thanks to a handful of recent films, Rio de Janeiro has become poster child for appalling city violence, and thanks to imports from several other countries on that same southern landmass, the political obscenities of neighboring ex-Spanish colonies are rehearsed. At the Museum of Modern Art, July 1-8, director and cowriter Lúcia Marat’s Almost Brothers/Quase dois irmãos effectively unites both ugly sides in a portrait of senators and revolutionaries, political and ordinary prisoners, whites and blacks, middle-age compromise and youthful idealism, samba, sex, drugs and favela shootouts.

Though some characters are difficult to tell apart -- not uncommon in subtitled (here, from the Portuguese) works -- the complex, potentially confusing technique actually presents no great problem. Indeed, seconded by a Naná Vasconcelos score that builds to end-crescendo, the abrupt, overlapping multi-level flashbacks and –forwards become mentally linear on an almost free association level. Murat deftly melds the 1950s, ‘70s and today, focusing particularly on the middle of the three periods, when, the world’s largest debtor nation and ruled by a series of generals and torn by leftist as well as rightist terrorism and kidnappings, her home was an example of most everything that could go wrong.

This chronological and filmic center thirty-odd years ago is set on Ilha Grande, the former leper colony today a snazzy resort but in between a maximum security prison with “strange protection afforded by the forces of evil” in which the director and her husband concurrently were confined as political prisoners of the state.

Defying his wife’s concern about money and prestige, a white musicologist frequents the Santa Marta Hill slums with his son, to drink in and accompany the guitar playing of black Jorge, whose wife voices similar complaints. The boy Miguel becomes fast friends with the favela composer’s son Jorginho, the almost brothers.

Some twenty years later, educated, articulate, married and bespectacled Marxist-Leninist Miguel (Caco Ciocler) is arrested and imprisoned at Ilha Grande, where Jorginho (Flavio Bauraqui) is incarcerated for theft. After a Middle Passage trip to the island, with frequent, abrupt, often brief time shifts into past as well as the film-frame of the future-present, the penitentiary center piece develops, wherein idealistic whites adopt Gandhian tactics to demand humane treatment and enforce their own code banning sodomy, theft and drugs.

Caught between music and his boyhood tie with Miguel, on one hand, and, on the other, the surly resistance of the largely black common criminals, Jorginho temporizes and would be all things to all men. The arrival of truculent anarchistic inmate Pingão (Babu Santana) will force him, and them all, to a decision and a parting of the ways.

The whole is framed within the present, where well-off and well-intentioned Miguel (Werner Schünemann) is a senator who visits jailed drug kingpin and Red Command leader Jorginho (Antônio Pompêo). Bald and ironic, the latter barks brutal telephone commands to ghetto subalterns of his virtual army, captained by his own dreadlocked son Deley (Renato de Souza) and challenged violently by internal rebel Duda. While the imprisoned black rejects the soft white politician’s “our fates are intertwined,” Miguel’s daughter Juliana (Maria Flor) has fallen for Deley at a new sounds Funke Baile. The youngsters’ intimacy interrupted by internecine gunplay within the steep stone-stepped ghetto, the teenage girl is tossed aside and thrown out.

In a generation-gap argument, her father lectures on the dangers that lurk, but, calling him a racist, she seeks her lover again, an unwelcome white girl of money entering what is in effect an area of civil war. Sorrow and repentance, hatred and violence, engulf them all, old friends and new, comrades- and brothers-in-arms and families. Though Miguel’s mother now enjoys the lifestyle she long ago lamented, and can affirm “everything’s going to be alright,” things point more toward the senator’s voice-over about “two lives, the one we dream of, and the one we live.”

Part picture of the compromises exacted by life, part sociopolitical screed, part naturalistic determinism, Almost Brothers tells a good story and tells it well. The plot device, different paths for two playmates, is archetypal -- Angels With Dirty Faces, Manhattan Melodrama and its rahash Cry of the City, plus many others -- but its technique of disjointing and yet fusing time while showing parallels and contrasts is creative without being distracting. Despite too many walking feet seen from behind, one empathizes with these characters, recognizes, pities, even admires them, and sighs, “If only!”

(Released by Imovision; not rated by MPAA.)

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