Return of the Fav Four
So many worthwhile independent and imported festival or cultural institution series films disappear afterwards into the woodwork of the undistributed. Antônia -- the conclusion of Tata Amaral’s trilogy exploring women, how they are represented and how they survive -- is a happy exception following its appearance at festivals in L.A. and Palm Springs and a New York première at the Museum of Modern Art’s fifth annual “Premiere Brazil!”
The five-year research, writing and location filming of what started with a department of culture request for something on young people in hip-hop and rap, has also spawned two shorts, a documentary, video clip, TV series and assorted musical projects. Although the film’s musical basis is hard rap imagined as jazz-like in a refrain imbedded in individual voice solo verse improvisations, there are also more melodic pieces and even a local take on the Don McLean-inspired soul ballad, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” The lyrics and the singing, by recognized Brazilian stars and aspiring hopefuls, non-professionals before the camera, emphasize determined female strength in front of small, enthusiastic, almost exclusively male audiences. To reassure those who do not take kindly to such sounds, let it be stated that this is not the violence- and obscenity-laced gangsta or mugger rap, and that the music is but a vehicle for a story about four young black women, friends since childhood in the outlying São Paulo favela of Vila Brasilândia.
Nor, counter to the current vocal and visual mayhem in fictional and documentary treatments of the troubled South American giant, is there anything objectionable. A women’s prison is merely innocuous white walls (like many in the film), a slap during a brief family squabble is unseen, and two street deaths are not in the least bloody or violent. Indeed, though the poor barrio of a quarter-million is hardly tourist-poster, the dwellings are not makeshift shanties but stone, with plumbing, kitchens, bathrooms, balconies, rooftops, and lots of light through unbroken windows, the menacing streets actually deserted if ill-lit (resulting in some graininess), and the views magnificent down into the city.
In the male chauvinistic world of club singing and concerts, the four principals are consigned to backing harmonies but, under the name Antônia (the protagonist of the ur-version, Lilá Rapper, and named for the director’s great-great grandfather), dream of making it in their own right. The key figure, to whom the others sometimes think-talk when she is not there, is Afro’d Preta (Negra Li, a major rapper originally from Vila Brasilândia). Her husband Hermano (Fernando Macario) rather a philanderer, she and young daughter Emilia (Nathalye Cris) move in with her Christian parents (samba musician Thobias da Vai-Vai and funk singer Sandra de Sá) and sometimes also with blonde dreadlocked Barbarah (black-music singer Leilah Moreno) and her gay brother Eduardo “Duda” (Chico Santo).
Completing the quartet are Lena (actress, MC and free-styler Cindy) and light-skinned Mayah (rap singer and dancer Quelynah), all four complementary yet each with her own mannerisms and personal baggage. They are taken on, for a twenty-percent cut of what is still virtually nothing, by flashy, fast-poetry-talking, good-at-heart manager Marcelo Diamante (early hip-hopper Thaíde), whose contacts are not lucrative but do allow for showcasing Antônia in different situations and tones, including a humorous, perhaps ironic, white birthday party.
With a charming, at times verging on amateurish quality, even to the bungled subtitles, the tale avoids the terrible triteness of many music films that touch on triumph, heartbreak, decline, and then a new, determined start.
The four never get far off the ground, though after it all they are ready to try again. Mayah and Preta quarrel and separate; Barbarah is imprisoned for manslaughter in the death of Robinho (Ezequiel da Silva), who nurses a soccer grudge and breaks Duda’s leg and kills his lover José; and Lena gets pregnant and is forbidden to perform by a self-righteous boyfriend who won’t stand for male audiences ogling her.
Alone with her daughter, Preta will make the first move to bring them back together. “Now what happens?” asks Mahay, and the film is wise enough not to posit a happy ending of success. Too openly insistent on the four’s re-found innate strength, on lyrics that pound home sisterhood, spirit, dreams and “taking your spot,” it does, nevertheless, balance their characters and is realistic about possibilities. Without frills, only an occasional bouncy camera or effective odd angle, it lets the women tell their own story. The result is improvised and unpolished, a mirror to these lives, like real music before studios engineer it into Muzak-lite.
(Released by Anywhere Road Entertainment and rated “PG-13” for some thematic material, language and brief language.)