Ópera do Malandro
aka Malandro
Reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Ruy Guerra. Cast: Edson Celulari, Elba Ramalho, Fábio Sabag, Claudia Ohana, Ney Latorraca, J.C. Violla, Cláudia Jimenez. Screenplay: Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Orlando Senna, and Ruy Guerra (based on the play by Chico Buarque de Hollanda).
Twitter Capsule: Comic-colored, Weill-ish street opera should delight but assembly verges on inept

Photo © 1986 MK2 Productions/Austra/T.F.1 Films
A year after the Brazilian director Hector Babenco brought Kiss of the Spider Woman to the Croisette, featuring some truly inspired parodies of ludicrous Nazi melodramas, his countryman Ruy Guerra showed up to the Directors' Fortnight with an equally ludicrous anti-Nazi fable. This time, though, it's harder to gauge how much of the formal ineptitude is meant facetiously, or why. The big opening gesture blends a camp-inflected fondness for Old Hollywood with a promise of kitsch-tinted virtuosity of technique. Which is to say, the mouth waters. Guerra's camera starts in tight on one of the nightclub scenes in William Wellman's Scarface, craning backward until we grasp that the film is being projected as outdoor, rooftop entertainment for a storybook version of Rio de Janeiro, rendered in hues as primary as Dick Tracy's, which pop even amid the blue-black night. Nobody is watching Scarface; nobody even seems to be outside. The city itself is soaking up the celluloid dreams. Meanwhile, the camera keeps craning backward and backward over the skyline, as in the openings of so many Paramount comedies and musicals of the pre-World War II years. Eventually, though, this buoyant, continuous shot pushes through an apartment window and alights on the very un-'30s spectacle of a bare-chested lothario fumbling for a cigarette lighter in the scarlet glow of a neon sign, the backside of some evening conquest visible in the background. Snazzing himself up in an all-white suit, and scrawling a rakish goodbye on the bedroom mirror with the sleeping woman's lipstick, this small-time, big-ego casanova, by the name of Max Overseas (no, really), slinks off into the shadow-strewn streets, where he crosses paths with two dozen swains wearing the same white suits and color-splashed shirts that he is. They sing. They dance. It all sounds so promising, right?

If there's anything to be said against this opening movement of Ópera do Malandro, it's that the exuberance in the filmmaking exceeds the skill—and that glaring failure of proportion only exacerbates itself as the film continues. Guerra has engaging ambitions of blending Hollywood nostalgia with Brechtian alienation and a heightened staging of Brazilian cultural idioms (not just sambas but Sambas, not just gangsters but Gangsters, etc.). That's a lot to pack into one film, and because each of those elements suggests a lens by which to view the others, in a fresh but floridly entertaining light, a great deal of agility is required for the whole movie to fly. But a nimble touch is precisely what Malandro lacks. Any film with this much song, this many classic-studio archetypes, and such a popsicle palette can ride on charm for a good while. For some audiences, the ride will go on and on, taking them just where they want to go, and where few modern films feel inclined to convey them. Impromptu dance-offs between rivalrous hookers, rudimentary trompe l'oeils with bathroom mirrors, snaggle-toothed beggars alchemized by music into wigged and rainbow-caftan'd women for hire... there will be as many viewers who can't say no to these propositions, and who won't want to, as there will be semiotics junkies who can't resist the compound sum of Jesse Lasky plus Threepenny Opera plus Carnival. But the equation doesn't add. Ópera do Malandro is way more Love's Labour's Lost than Moulin Rouge!, both in formal execution and in its awkward orientation to World War II. The film means to be ersatz but perhaps not this much.

A belated title card warns us, with enough self-seriousness to make us nervous, that it's 1941, and the Brazilian government has defied the will of the people in officially allying with the Nazi regime. Prep yourself now for the requisite German misogynist pimp, though you probably wouldn't have thought to name him Otto Struedel (Fábio Sabag). Prepare, too, for the inevitable scenes where someone calls, "Hey, I heard they just bombed an American base in Hawaii!" Mostly, World War II functions here as a way to explain why other characters get so enflamed, for better or worse, by Max's taste in girlfriends (her father's a Nazi!) and by his preference for certain money-making schemes over others (he's in bed with Nazis, or wait, he's screwing over the Nazis!). The war is also useful, as so often in cinema, in furnishing such stark oppositions of right and wrong "sides" that almost any deficiencies in Max's character or any charismatic shortfalls in Edson Celulari's performance can be excused. As long as he's not pro-Hitler, we, ostensibly, can be cajoled into being pro-Max. But especially given Celulari's pegboard approximation of an already limited character, Max is too witless and, despite the pop-brite conception of the whole film, too joyless a figure for us to really get behind, even at the level of kitschy escapism.

The sets, costumes, and overwrought exchanges keep implying that we're meant to be having a ball, but Celulari is hardly the only actor who seems both smug about and flummoxed by the vehicle that entraps him. He's obviously intended as the cool customer, but nothing radiates from his face, his body, his movements, his line readings. The same can be said of Elba Ramalho, playing Margot, the hooker whom Max endlessly strings along and who once dated the sheriff who now tracks him all over town. She stands outside the part of the bitter, wounded, but optimistic prostitute-girlfriend (and what a role that is!), but not in any sophisticated sense of standing apart. She's too abrasive when delivering one of Margot's tirades or emitting her characteristic resentments, but also too harsh a presence for Margot's oases of romantic feeling to click. Claudia Ohana, as Ludmila Struedel, the Nazi pimp's saucer-faced daughter, comes across as a second understudy, rushed into the part without enough notice. There's not a lot to play here, but for all her efforts to be gamine, Ohana looks too focused on hitting marks and remembering lines.

The actors feel cold, in a film whose mise-en-scène keeps taking warmth for granted. And they aren't cold in the same way, or in a way that illuminates something special in the piece, so it's hard to write this off as some intricate directorial tactic. Maybe the actors were giving perfectly zesty performances and Guerra's travails at picking camera angles just consigned the performers' achievements to the dustbin. There's no consistency of style to how his camera moves or where it places itself; in some scenes it seems too excitable and in others insufficiently so. There are plenty of reasons to feel skeptical of sultry, exoticizing pageants like Black Orpheus, but as a piece of visual, mythic, and rhythmic choreography, at least that movie feels in sync with itself. As unified as the palette and the wardrobes are in Ópera do Malandro—which at least tries to do something interesting with clichéd representations of torrid Brazil, by playing up to them and undercutting them at the same time—there is no consistency of tone or technique that helps hold together a discombobulated script that passes from farce to violence, borderline improvisation to ambitious set-pieces. The assassination of a sympathetic travesti named Geni (J.C. Violla) is filmed so dispassionately, compared to the camera's sentimental or editorial agitations at other moments, that you wonder if Malandro simply has no response to the offing of its resident queer. A subsequent story beat confirms that Guerra does indeed see this as a poignant, episode, worth avenging, but at that point, not unusually, he feels a few beats behind his own movie, racing to spark affective reactions to characters and events that have limped around the screen too long to pick the beat back up. This problem reaches its most distilled form by the end, which already features a stock and unconvincing reversal in a major character's motives, then saddles that shaky foundation with a series of endings that feel disjointed from each other, in rhythmic as well as narrative terms. It's hard to know what ending I really wanted by this point, but I'm sure it wasn't any of these.

I realize it sounds like I had a miserable time watching Ópera do Malandro, which I didn't. Yes, the wartime context seemed grandiose and more trouble than it was worth for what could have been a punchy, sleazy love triangle. The visuals that Guerra keeps trying to lay down as his movie's ace of hearts seem perky but a little chintzy: fine for dinner theater, but not nearly enough to give a (purposefully?) maladroit enterprise its raison d'être as cinema. The original play by Chico Buarque was influential and warmly received in Brazil, and I am more confident here than I was about Love Me Forever or Never that a native speaker of Portuguese and/or a resident of Brazil must relate to this project much more fondly and fluently than I did. As in Love's Labour's Lost, I just found the formal stumbling more and more symptomatic of a fundamentally precarious enterprise, which neither makes the right kind of fond, contagious fun of itself nor sells itself as anything to take seriously.

I don't know bad to feel about the fact that I kept thinking fondly of Janet Jackson's "Alright" video while I watched Ópera do Malandro, and of French & Saunders' parody of being supernumeraries in Carmen. The former proves that pop doesn't need substance or even coherence when it's got slickness, joy, and panache; the latter manifests comparable production values but knows, obviously, what a joke they are, and yet that joke is incapable of putting itself over without perfectly orchestrated contributions from script, camera, and performance. Guerra may not have had all the money he needed to make thinks truly spiffy, or the choreographers and camera operators required to make it all sleek, but you forgive under-budgeting and stylistic under-achieving when a film like this can show you some heart. I'm not saying there is no heart to be found in Ópera do Malandro, or that I'm the most qualified person to diagnose its health, but even when artists are inspired by two-dimensional kitsch, their conviction if not their final product needs to swell to at least three. If you're standing in the wrong angles in relation to Ópera do Malandro—and given the camera placements, you almost always are—it's difficult to see the film at all, much less its heart. It's like a postcard to an idea that was already a postcard, sent from a postcard approximation of a real place, and set in the context of world events that are frequently seized for their pop-sentimental postcard potential. That's a lot of cards to hold in one hand. No wonder Guerra keeps shuffling them. Grade: C–

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Whatever problems make themselves felt here, they aren't about ambition. And however inspired by heterogeneous influences, the attempted synthesis has its own personality. Some people will find it endearing or more, I'm sure. My problem is that the execution feels so wildly, increasingly off, but the conception is really worth rooting for, and at the very least, Malandro makes a distinctive enough impression that you keep hoping it will pull itself together, even after the prospect grows steadily dimmer. You aren't likely, in any event, to confuse the film with anything else.

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