Saturday, July 24, 2010

Premiere Brazil ’10: Time of Fear

Evidently, business is terrible for piano teachers in São Paulo. Fortunately, one widower finds a lucrative second job, working as a gofer for the criminal organization that runs the prison her young son is incarcerated in. Both get quite an education in criminal enterprise in Sergio Rezende’s Time of Fear (trailer here), which screens during MoMA’s annual Premiere Brazil film series.

As Fear opens, Lúcia’s prized piano is suspended in mid-air outside the middle class apartment she and her son Rafael are vacating. It is sort of a cool sight, but she and Rafael find it hard to watch. Having exhausted her late husband’s death benefits, they are moving to a distinctly low rent neighborhood. Rafael is taking it particularly badly, so she lets him spend Mother’s Day evening with friends. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Instead of taking in a movie, Rafael boasts a car and heads to the nearest street race. When things get a bit dicey there, the stupid kid accidentally kills an innocent by-stander. Of course, his mother has limited resources for his defense, but frankly Rafael does not have much of a case anyway. Ironically, he is somewhat lucky just to be sentenced to a proper prison (such as it is), instead of the over-crowded, festering holding cell.

On one fateful visiting day, Lúcia makes the acquaintance of Ruiva, a corrupt lawyer (and hair salon proprietor) who works for the criminal syndicate known as “The Command.” Essentially a Maoist Mafia, they control Rafael prison. Before she realizes it, Lúcia is running errands for Ruiva, frequently visiting the imprisoned founder, known as “the Professor,” with whom she quickly becomes romantically involved. However, there is dissension brewing.

Though it is not clear how exactly the Professor and his rivals differ ideologically, he is far less inclined to order assassinations of law enforcement figures, which should be sufficient to consider him the moderate. Since the rest of The Command is anxious to start killing, they naturally start with him. Then things really get violent.

Loosely based on an actual São Paolo prison riot that occurred on Mother’s Day 2006, Fear presents a scathing critique of the country’s justice system. Bizarrely, Brazil chose this lurid melodrama as their official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration. It had no chance. That does not mean Rezende’s film is not entertaining. In fact, it is compulsively watchable, like a James Cagney motherhood-and-racketeering B-movie on a crack bender.

Fortunately, Mother Lúcia is more-or-less a redeeming figure. Though ever loyal to her son, she also sharply reminds him an innocent life was cut short by his careless actions in one notably pointed scene. Indeed, Andréa Beltrão has a compelling everywoman presence as the piano teacher with street cred. While her work is fully developed and convincing, many of her costars are telenovella veterans and their roots often show. Yet, such performances are not out of place in a film like Fear.

Hardly Oscar bait or even art cinema, Fear is a guilty pleasure. Messy and sprawling, it would never be confused as a Brazilian tourism PSA either, but it offers an intriguing look at the nexus between radical leftism and organized crime (perhaps inadvertently). It screens again at MoMA tomorrow (7/25) as Premiere Brazil continues.