Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brazil in Revolt: Carnal Utopia

Regardless how revolutionary the ideology might be, free love is never free. One Leftist university professor learns as much trying to keep his mistress sheltered while simultaneously stoking their radical fervor against Brazil’s military regime. Indeed, passion and revolution are closely linked in Marcelo Santiago’s politically charged 1970’s period drama, Carnal Utopia (trailer here), now available on DVD.

After years of preaching revolution from the classroom, an academic finally joins the armed struggle in earnest. Though he has to leave campus in a hurry, he takes along the coed who has fallen under his sway. Instead of a love-nest, they set up a cell. Yet the professor, now known as Saulo, uses it as a gilded cage to keep his lover, henceforth called Cristiana, isolated and emotionally dependent. However, following a violent action, Saulo is forced to bring home a wounded comrade for Christiana to nurse back to health. As a strange added complication, their underground organization’s strict security policies require the wounded man wear his hooded mask whenever Cristiana is present.

Much to Saulo’s unfathomable surprise, Cristiana is fascinated by the newcomer. He is after all, a mystery man wearing a kinky mask who has just proved his commitment to revolution in a violent action, having given up his life as an elite ballet dancer. Yes, Saulo is a clueless former academic.

Utopia is clearly packaged to emphasize the naughty bits, but anyone coming to the film expecting late-night pay cable fare will probably find it disappointingly arty and plot-driven. Granted, Santiago most definitely sexualizes political violence, but not with overly prurient intentions. In fact, Utopia is as much about the claustrophobic, hot house dynamic of their cell, (briefly expanded to four when Saulo ill-advisedly takes in another comrade gone somewhat loopy.)

Indeed, at times character motivation unfortunately borders on the dubious, as their jealousies and rivalries fester. Yes, these are extreme ideologues, but they ought to have some measure of common sense. Still, the film is quite well put-together beginning with a striking opening montage and continuing throughout with cinematographer Dudu Miranda’s effective alternating use of color and stylized black-and-white film. It also sounds great thanks to the original score composed by Wagner Tiso, a veteran figure on the Brazilian jazz and pop scenes, as well as several songs from his frequent collaborator Milton Nascimento, which are probably especially evocative of the historical era for Utopia’s Brazilian audiences.

Felipe Camargo blusters and pontificates rather convincingly as the unsympathetic Saulo. To his credit, Sérgio Marone makes a rather decent impression in the film, considering he spends most of the film with a burlap sack on his head. Mel Lisboa’s Cristiana is hard to get a handle on though—is she a true militant or naïve student seduced by her professor? It is hard to determine based on the evidence of the film.

Santiago, (associate producer of Bruno Baretto’s underrated May-December romance Bossa Nova) wisely prevents Utopia from reveling too long in its characters politics, preferring the universal love triangle dramas. Ultimately, it is an imperfect but interesting film that is far more mainstream art-house friendly than its translated title would suggest.