Adoring fans can be dangerous to your health. You could have asked Brazilian football legend Heleno de Freitas about it, but that would have been a very one-sided conversation. The one-two punch of syphilis and ether addiction might have directly ravaged his body and mind, but he was really undone by his inner demons. As a result, there is much more tragedy than triumph in his real life sports story, dramatized in José Enrique Fonseca’s Heleno (trailer here), which screens this week during MoMA’s annual Premiere Brazil!
Before Pelé, there was de Freitas. He really was a once in a generation player. Yet he never appeared in a world cup match for Brazil. First World War II preempted the Cup, then de Freitas’s erratic conduct essentially preempted himself. When he was good, he was great, but he was never much of a team player. Poor Alberto could attest to that. Ostensibly de Freitas’s best friend and team-captain, the decent old chap is often the object of de Freitas’s back-handed contempt.
Initially, there are plenty of women coming and going in the diva-striker’s life, but he eventually settles on two: his wife Silvia, a respectable woman from a good family and Diamantina, the sultry big band vocalist. Obviously, this is one too many—at least if asked either of the women. Unfortunately, the bad seeds of his wild years have already been sown. Though he is urged to get treatment, Heleno is too busy making a hash of his life, both personally and professionally.
Told in a series of flashbacks from his long, hopeless period of institutionalization, Heleno has to be one of the darkest, most pessimistic sports films in years. Shot in a massively stylish black-and-white by cinematographer Walter Carvalho (arguably Brazil’s most preeminent), the film has a noir sensibility that is way more Lost Weekend than Pride of the Yankees. A far cry from “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” Heleno comes to believe he is saddled with persistent bad luck, but everything is clearly his own fault.
Frankly, there is not a lot of on-the-field action, but when there is, it is hardly glorious. Heleno is almost an anti-sports bio-pic, grimly depicting the consequences of groupie hook-ups and ether abuse. It is not a pretty picture. At least Heleno sounds great, featuring several era-appropriate big band numbers and a licensed Billie Holiday song (Ellington’s “Solitude”).
As Diamantina, Colombian actress Angie Cepeda seems pretty credible behind the microphone and she (or whoever it is) sounds quite pleasing on the soundtrack. Strangely though, she looks like she could be the sister of Alinne Moraes’s Silvia, which makes the love triangle harder to keep straight. However, 300’s Rodrigo Santoro is undeniably the main event, falling apart spectacularly as de Freitas. It is big, fiery performance, marked explosive rage and a painfully slow psychotic break from the outside world. As a cautionary turn, it certainly ought to scare kids away from the ether bottle.
Featuring bravura work from Santoro in front of the camera and Carvalho behind it, Heleno is a striking period production and an uncompromising depiction of self-destructive behavior and mental illness. Though de Freitas might not have Pelé’s name recognition, the Brazilian football (soccer) angle ought to guarantee it a devoted cult audience during festival play. Recommended for those who enjoy a sophisticated 1940’s vibe and appreciate a classically tragic fall from grace, Heleno screens again this Wednesday (7/18) in New York, as part of MoMA’s 2012 Premiere Brazil!