Readers are rightly skeptical of novels ostensibly written by famous people. Of course, the Brazilian music legend Chico Buarque is not a typical celebrity. He was in fact briefly imprisoned for an experimental play he wrote in the late 1960’s. While composing and performing some of biggest hits of bossa, samba, and MPB, Buarque also maintained his literary chops, writing internationally acclaimed plays and novels, like 2003’s Budapest, now adapted for the screen (trailer here) by director Walter Carvalho and screening tonight at the 2009 Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil film festival.
Budapest is a spectacular city, whose beauty remained undiminished by fifty-some years of Communist misrule. Though it is a world away from Rio, the city would exert an irresistible pull on José Costa following a chance stopover in the Hungarian capitol. Returning home from the annual ghost-writers convention, Costa is increasingly frustrated to see his clients celebrated for his words. Especially disturbing is the extent to which his newsreader wife seems charmed by one particular German expat customer currently enjoying a run on the bestseller list, thanks to his ghost-writing services.
Costa’s intimate relationship with language has been a blessing and a curse in his life, so immersing himself in Hungarian represents an attempt to hit the reset button. He finds himself deeply attracted to his divorced language teacher Kriszta, but is frustrated by both verbal and emotional language barriers. Though Kriszta claims Magyar is “the only language the Devil respects,” Costa soon masters it to the level that he again finds himself facing the same dilemma regarding the ownership of his words.
Ironically, Budapest’s story of a frustrated ghostwriter was in fact written by a celebrity, Buarque, who makes a surreal, non-musical cameo appearance. The film’s soundtrack actually features none of the author’s vocals, instead showcasing Leo Gandelman’s smoothly romantic saxophone and some effective string chamber music.
Leonardo Medeiros is a mass of insecure neuroses as José Costa (a.k.a. Zsoze Kósta), but not a particularly pleasant protagonist to spend time with. However, Gabriella Hámori brings intriguing depth to Kriszta, Costa’s demanding teacher and mercurial lover.
Carvalho effectively uses his picturesque Budapest locations, including a memorable visual of an enormous disassembled statue of Lenin, slowly drifting down the Danube on a garbage barge. While the M. Night Shyamalan-style ending is not very surprising, he maintains some sense of uncertainty by resisting the urge to fit each and every little piece together.
Caustically satirizing the book business, Budapest is a memorable film media professionals would particularly appreciate. Ultimately though, it is a strange, dreamlike love letter to the poetic power of words and one of the truly great cities of the world. It screens again tonight (8/7) as the Petrobras Brasil Fest concludes at the Tribeca Cinemas.