Saturday, July 16, 2011

Premiere Brazil ’11: Chico Xavier

Chico Xavier was like the Brazilian Edgar Cayce, except a lot of people fervently believed in him. Thanks primarily to his influence, Spiritism continues to thrive in Brazil and has become big business at the country’s box office. The medium’s life is told straight, without skepticism, in Daniel Filho’s rather odd bio-picture Chico Xavier (trailer here), which screens during the MoMA’s 2011 Premiere Brazil film series.

Xavier had a tragic childhood, losing his mother at an early age. He endured the abuse of his cruel god mother, only comforted by occasional visits from his mother’s spirit, until his father re-married and reunited his large unwieldy brood. Xavier’s stepmother was a kind and sensitive woman, but she too died terribly young.

Supposedly, Xavier could see dead people and receive messages through automatic writing. He published over four hundred books, but claimed authorship of none. With the wise council of his spirit guide Emmanuel, Xavier amassed a large following throughout Brazil for his consoling messages. Never did he seek to capitalize from his teachings according to Filho’s film. He merely wanted to foster a more mystical approach to life with aphorisms like: “No one can go back and create a new beginning; but anyone can start again and create a new ending.”

Where’s that annoying Matthew Chapman with his dude on the ledge when we need him? To be fair, if Xavier’s Spiritism helped people find meaning in their lives, than that is all well and good. However, Filho’s film does not extend equal courtesies to the Catholic Church, comically portraying it in a perpetual state of “see no evil” denial. Yet, Xavier liberally co-opted Catholic prayers and theology for his uniquely Brazilian variant of spiritualism.

One thing conspicuously missing in Filho’s film is a love interest at any period of Xavier’s life. Indeed, there is none of sauciness Brazilian cinema does so well. Rather, this is Spiritism hagiography in a very real sense. You could say the medium is the message. Again, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. After all, the lives of the Saints are filled with spectacular drama that would make great cinema. Unfortunately, there is little conflict in Filho’s Chico Xavier, aside from a few dust-ups with a skeptical (and deceitful) press. In fact, the big climax involves a dramatic letter from the dead Xavier delivers to a hostile television director after appearing on his show. Yet, the audience never has a sense Xavier is ever aware of the man and his issues, so it all seems to come out of the blue.

Without question, Giovanna Antonelli is the film’s standout as Xavier’s stepmother, Cidália. She projects warmth and humanity without coming across as a symbol, which is definitely a potential hazard in a film like this. Matheus Costa is also quite assured as young Xavier, but his two adult incarnations seem a bit shticky in the part. Ângelo Antônio appears to be channeling Tony Shalhoub in Monk, while Nelson Xavier could be Henry Silva’s doppelganger as old Xavier. Still, the latter has an undeniable screen charisma. Unfortunately, whenever André Dias appears as Emmanuel, the film veers into corniness.

Filho treats Xavier and Spiritism with unfailing respect, which is perfectly fitting and proper. However, as cinema, Xavier’s story needs a more defined dramatic arc. Frankly, the film’s structure is almost completely inverted, with all the major plot points happening up top. This is particularly odd considering what an old pro Filho is having helmed films like the elegant post-WWII drama Time of Peace and the serviceable body-switch comedies If I Were You 1 and 2, at least two of which screened at New York’s other annual showcase of Brazilian cinema. Somewhat intriguing, but hardly essential for non-Spiritists, Chico Xavier screens again at MoMA this coming Thursday (7/21) and Friday (7/22).