By Lance Belville
The much praised, prized and applauded Brazilian history-meets-headlines drama, ALMOST BROTHERS (Brazilian title, QUASE DOIS IRMĂOS), moved standing-room-only audiences at the International film Festival here as it has all over the world. The film packs an emotional wallop while delving simultaneously into the painful Brazilian political past and raw current events.
Through creative, parallel and non-chronological story telling, the film humanizes a moment in Brazil's recent political history on Ilha Grande and traces its consequences into the life and headlines of Brazil today.
Ilha Grande probably means little more to newly arrived expats in Brazil than a pleasant weekend on a beautiful island off Angra Dos Reis. But to those of us around in the 60's and 70's, those two words hit hard. Ilha Grande was an infamous prison housing many political prisoners during the dark days of Brazil's recently military dictatorship. The heart of ALMOST BROTHERS plays out in the dungeons of Ilha Grande.
Screenwriter/director, Lúcia Murat, knows what she's talking about. She, herself, was serving time as a political prisoner in a women's cell block on the Ilha while her husband served in the nearby men's section at about the time events portrayed in this film took place. It is to Murat's credit that she was able to discipline her insider's knowledge and deep emotional attachment to the material and sculpt it into moving drama. Writer Paulo Lins, author of "Cidade De Deus," lent a hand on the screenplay and it shows. The favela scenes are dead on, a la "Cidade De Deus."
The main story follows the development of the lifetime friendship between Miguel, a middle class white kid, the son of a musicologist, and Jorge, the black son of a favela composer, from shared childhoods to political prison in the 70's into present-day adulthood. These two are the ALMOST BOTHERS of the title. The second, parallel story line follows their children who meet and become lovers.
In the 1970's, Miguel, a firebrand young political activist, is caught in the net of DOPS, the political police. Miguel is imprisoned with other young middle-class white leftists fighting the military dictatorship beside common criminals on the feared Ilha Grande Maximum Security Prison. Jorge, now a petty thief, winds up on Ilha Grande as well.
The musical score by composer/guitarist, Naná Vasconcelos, is a powerful actor in the drama and Murat intended it that way. It makes possible the friendship of Miguel and Jorge's fathers across the wide socioeconomic chasm that separates them and the two boys follow and become close. Later, in prison, as their friendship matures in manhood, samba serves as the glue that binds the two and the release that makes the otherwise austere Ilha prison life bearable. Paulo and Miguel's children will, likewise, meet and become involved with each other through music.
The political prisoners form a collective. They ban drugs and pederasty and use a combination of hunger strikes and passive resistance of various kinds to support inmates' interests. Reluctantly the criminals, like Jorge, follow suit because the system invented by the politicos is working.
Eventually the criminal elements, including Jorge, are separated from the politicos on the demand of the politicos. But important lessons have been learned which will impact life in Brazil. Jorge and his criminal cohorts organize along the lines of the politicos. The infamous "Red Command," is born. The "Red Command," will move out the prisons and into favela life, using some of the techniques of the political organizers to develop what will become a drug ring controlling the illegal drug trade throughout Brazil.
Flashing backward and forward in time, the film follows the largely sexual relationship between Jorge's son, Deley, and Miguel's daughter, Juliana. Deley is chief enforcer for the drug lord in the favela. The two develop a largely sexual relationship after meeting at one of the numerous Funke Bailes in present-day Rio. Funke Bailes are currently bringing middle class kids in search of the most exciting new musical sounds together with young favelados around Rio much as Samba brought Miguel and Jorge together as children along with their fathers.
Miguel and Jorge move forward into present-day Rio. We see Miguel, now a well-fed, well-meaning politician try to convince a favela drug lord, who rules a favela in Miguel's district from within the walls of Bangu Maximum Security Prison, to throw his support behind a scheme of Miguel's. Miguel wants to provide outlets for the youth to winnow them away from drug dealing to construction jobs and the possibility of a law-abiding future. The drug lord he meets with, of course, is none other than his old pal Jorge, now bald, bad and bitter. Both men, basically decent, have made the necessary compromises with life. The music has ended between them.
The similarities between the story line of ALMOST BROTHERS and real-life are numerous and sobering. According to director Lúcia Murat, the most recent came on the eve of her flying here for a Film Festival appearance. Rio media flooded her phone with requests for interviews regarding a case virtually identical to Juliana and Deley's in the film. The police told her they had twenty similar cases that had not made the news.
QUASE DOIS IRMŐES is currently playing in various cities around Brazil. It's a "must see" for old-time expats who witnessed, first-hand, the military take-over of Brazil. It is also a must-see for newbie expats who wish to get a background on some current events. For viewers watching the film six thousand miles away in San Francisco, it was an entertaining way to get a fast trip into the bewildering Brazil they see portrayed in their morning newspapers.
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This is the second in a series of exclusive articles and interviews for Gringoes.com direct from the Sao Francisco International Film Festival. Lance Belville is a nine-year veteran of reporting from Brazil for UPI and ABC and has since become a playwright and screenwriter living in the San Francisco area. He refers to himself as a repat.