Monday, July 09, 2012

Premiere Brazil! ’12: Dirty Hearts

Brazil was the only Latin American country to commit troops to the Allied cause during World War II, but the country’s early strategic alignment was decidedly slippery.  However, they evidently prosecuted the war quite zealously after the armistice.  As home to the largest expatriate Japanese community, Brazil outlawed the Japanese language, the public display of the Japanese flag, and the free assemblage of Japanese-Brazilians.  Ironically, this would isolate the targeted enclaves, making them susceptible to extremist groups that refused to accept Japan’s defeat.  A decent man loses his soul to those Shindo Renmei nationalists in Vincete Amorim’s Dirty Hearts (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Premiere Brazil! showcase at the Museum of Modern Art.

Most Japanese immigrants in post-war Brazil only speak Japanese.  Already shunned by the Brazilian establishment, they have little need of Portuguese within their cooperative.  Ekemi, the young daughter of the cooperative president is an exception.  She often translates for Takahashi, the mild mannered portrait photographer.  Takahashi is a simple man devoted to his wife Miyuki, but his lack of confidence makes him vulnerable to the venom of Colonel Watanabe, a retired Imperial officer and big wheel amongst the community.

According to Watanabe, anyone who believes Japan has surrendered and the emperor has renounced his divinity has willfully bought into Allied propaganda and must therefore have a “dirty heart.”  The characters for that ominous epithet start to appear on the walls of Portuguese speaking Japanese, serving as none too subtle death threats.  Perhaps because of his size, Watanabe taps the reluctant but impressionable Takahashi to be their lead hatchet man.  Assassinating former friends, Takahashi jeopardizes his wife’s love, the affection of Akemi, and his sense of honor.

Regardless of what we have seen in samurai films (like for instance 13 Assassins, in which lead actor Tsuyoshi Ihara also appears), it is rather hard work killing someone with a sword.  Dirty features some of the ugliest, messiest, least glamorous swordplay viewers are likely to see on film.  This is an anti-war film after all, positing ideology as the real killer.

Ihara’s portrayal of the guilt-ridden Takahashi is viscerally intense, yet the film’s most memorable work comes from young Celine Fukumoto.  Her earnest but utterly natural performance makes Akemi a worthy successor to Scout Finch in the annals of youthful cinematic consciences.  Likewise, Tokako Tokiwa is quite arresting as the increasingly horrified Miyuki.  The Portuguese-Brazilians are rather few and far between in Dirty, but fans might recognize Eduardo Moscovis (who went crazy rather nicely in The Last Madness) as the local ineffectual lawman.

Frankly, Dirty largely lets the Brazilian authorities off the hook, despite creating the conditions that gave first rise to the Shindo Renmei movement and then allowing them to tear the Japanese immigrant community apart.  Granted, Amorim employs plenty of emotional manipulation, but he illustrates the danger of extremist group-think quite effectively. 

Often riveting but also eye-opening, Dirty Hearts is strongly recommended when it screens this Friday (7/13) and Monday the 23rd as part of MoMA’s Premiere Brazil, the only game in town for Brazilian cinema after Petrobras unceremoniously withdrew the funding for Inffinito’s New York Cine Fest.  (FYI: New York taxpayers, that would be the same Petrobras that potentially stands to receive controversial U.S. Export-Import Bank loans and continues to fund the London Cine Fest.)