Brazil has been a lot in the news lately, what with the soccer world cup, public protests and presidential elections - all the more reason to be attentive to the strikingly inventive and interesting independent cinema the country is now producing. The first foray into narrative fiction from documentary filmmaker João Jardim, best known abroad for his work with Lucy Walker in the glossy, well-meaning documentary Waste Land, triangulates many of these issues into a fictionalised take on the last few days in the life of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, who died by his own hand in 1954.
Mr. Jardim is seeking that sweet spot between popular mainstream and auteur filmmaking that Walter Salles, Fernando Meirelles and José Padilha reached before him - and, as so many others before him, he also fails to find it. Despite an excellent ensemble cast led by Tony Ramos as an aged, disenchanted Vargas, Getúlio is a hurried, harried, jumbled primer in Brazil's mid-century history as a political thriller and a glossy, over-stylized City of God also-ran, full of camera trickery and flashy visuals, as a narrative film.
At times, there's a sense that Mr. Jardim and his talented DP Walter Carvalho are aiming for a sort of Oliver Stone stream-of-consciousness visual overload. But where Mr. Stone's maximalist approach in films such as Nixon or JFK was justified by his need to find a visual equivalent to the labyrinth of theories, contexts, places and characters his sprawling plots required, Getúlio seldom leaves the Catete presidential palace where everything takes place.
His reliance on both jittery handheld cameras and sweeping, stately pans and set-ups tends therefore to read more as a solution to keep his parlour political thriller from feeling hemmed in. The key to its plot, though, is precisely that Getúlio Vargas, a former dictator who was democratically elected for a third term, was indeed hemmed in by the circumstances, trapped in a prison of his own making, running round like a hamster in a wheel.
The film follows the last few days of the president's life, as a botched hit on crusading journalist Carlos Lacerda (Alexandre Borges) that kills an Air Force officer is traced back to members of the president's own security guard and unravels his government as internecine factions start jousting for power in a post-Getúlio world. Both in Mr. Ramos' exquisitely judged performance and in the script by George Moura, Teresa Frota and Mr. Jardim, Getúlio is a tale of a man lost in its own entropy, weathering a storm that is spinning out of control, and realising that the events have overtaken him to a point nothing he can do - except his death - can put things right.
But that core of calm at the centre of the hurricane is drowned by all the huffing and puffing around him, with the constant back-and-forth between aides (and mostly his own daughter Alzira, played by Drica Moraes) eventually becoming the film, a continuous series of interferences (and that includes the rather obtrusive dream sequences) that distract from its lead character. It's as if Getúlio were a ghost, already dead, but without knowing it, and the film forgot to look into that, preferring to explore only the chaos around him.
Undeniably proficient technically, Getúlio is nevertheless a disheartening experience, as you sense Mr. Jardim is constantly missing the forest for the trees. Nowhere more than in the close-up of Mr. Ramos as Getúlio remembers his now dead older son, a close-up that in its handheld intrusiveness and tone-deafness with what's at stake around him becomes the exact opposite of what the director wants to evoke. In trying too hard to reach for the centre, Getúlio gets lost all over the place.
Brazil, Portugal 2014
Cast Tony Ramos, Drica Moraes, Alexandre Borges, Adriano Garib, Fernando Luís, Leonardo Medeiros, Marcelo Medici, Alexandre Nero, Jackson Antunes, Thiago Justino, Clarisse Abujamra, Michel Bercovitch, José Raposo, Cláudio Tovar, Daniel Dantas, Fernando Eiras, Paulo Giardini, Murilo Grossi
Director João Jardim; screenwriters George Moura and Teresa Frota with Mr. Jardim; based on a story by Mr. Jardim; cinematographer Walter Carvalho (colour, widescreen); composer Federico Jusid; art director Tiago Marques; costumes Marcelo Pies, Valéria Stefani; editors Joana Ventura, Pedro Bronz; producers Pedro Borges, Mr. Jardim, Flávia Borges; production companies Copacabana Filmes e Produções and Fogo Azul Filmes in co-production with Globo Filmes, Telecine Productions, Midas Filmes, MGM Latin America and RTP
Screened October 24th 2014, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)