15 November 2007 | debblyst
A well-intentioned mess
The true story of four Dominican friars -- Tito (Caio Blat), Fernando (Léo Quintão), Ivo (Odilon Esteves) and Betto (Daniel de Oliveira) -- who, in the late 1960s, were actively engaged in helping left-wing organizations in radical actions against the ultra-violent Brazilian military regime. Denounced, arbitrarily arrested and savagely tortured in military and police precincts, they were subsequently prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated, but one of them would not survive: Tito, exiled in France, paranoid, depressed and unable to cope with the terrifying memories of physical and psychological torture, committed suicide in 1973, hanging himself from a tree in the Convent of La Tourette.
"Batismo de Sangue", based on Frei (friar) Betto's eponymous best-selling account of the facts, is yet another piece in the mosaic Brazilian filmmakers are trying to assemble concerning the tragic, traumatic "lead years" of the military regime in Brazil (1964-1985). The fact that Betto, Fernando and Ivo are still alive and have collaborated with director/writer Helvécio Ratton in the film gives "Batismo" a first-hand, I've-been-there legitimacy. Regrettably, the film turns out to be an honest, serious, well-intentioned mess.
The main problem with "Batismo" is the shapeless, confusing screenplay: the facts are thrown on the screen with no links, preparation, dramatic criteria. Ratton doesn't know how to select his material: instead of choosing a few characters and situations and developing them, he sticks in loads of absolutely expendable scenes and characters (e.g. the journalist who's in love with Betto, Tito's sister, etc) and chops everything up to the point of unintelligibility. You have to do the writers' work for them, figuring out who's who, what their connections are, establishing causes and effects, and filling in the narrative gaps.
The four main characters have no individual personalities, no back stories, we know nothing about them except that they are Dominican friars who somehow got caught up in the events. And it doesn't help that they all look alike, with their white habits, dark hair and thick glasses. We never get to understand WHY Tito sinks into paranoia and depression while the other three somehow get over their harsh experience. Likewise, the "evil" characters (the torturers) are laughable caricatures, devils just short of having horns and hoofs. We also have to deal with dozens of sketchy under-written characters -- friars, students, political activists, prison inmates, lawyers, judges, and the women in general -- who overcrowd the screen and make things even more confusing.
The time that could be devoted to building up the characters is spent on gruesome, graphic torture scenes. No doubt it's important to show to younger generations that, not so long ago, systematic torture was an institutionalized routine praxis of the Brazilian Military Government. But those scenes backfire: we know so little about the friars who are being tortured that all we can do is appreciate how realistic, disgusting and bloody it all looks -- in those scenes the film dangerously slips into the slasher/gore genre.
Naturally, the film is unavoidably Catholic: there are scenes of enlightening egalitarian sermons, soul-searching antiphonies and chantings, improvised masses in the filthy prison cells that melt down the hard hearts of the atheist Communist activists (but not the hearts of the eeeevil military, of course, though they were probably Catholic themselves), theological explanations about how St.Thomas Aquinas can be summoned to validate guerrillas, and how Communists and Dominicans are meant to be brothers deep down, since Jesus was a revolutionary activist who was also persecuted, tortured and murdered. These long scenes can be REALLY off-putting for non-Catholics.
There are other disappointments: the cast is under-used, with fine actors like Daniel de Oliveira and Ângelo Antônio especially wasted. Caio Blat seems, like us, totally lost about Tito: he jumps from goofy, joyous innocence to faithless, depressive paranoia with nothing in-between. First-timers Léo Quintão and Odilon Esteves are unimpressive and Marku Ribas as Marighella is an embarrassment. Worst of all is scenery-chewing Cássio Gabus Mendes as the tough big boss torturer Fleury: he yells so much his voice goes into spasms. The music by the great experimental musician Marco Antonio Guimarães is disappointingly ineffective: it just isn't film music. On the positive side, Lauro Escorel's cinematography is very accomplished, as usual, and Adrian Cooper's art direction is suitably evocative of that era.
I wish I could recommend "Batismo de Sangue": it's a serious enterprise full of good intentions -- but that's about it. However, it will perhaps urge some viewers to read Frei Betto's far more comprehensive and coherent book, so the film's not a complete waste of everybody's efforts.