Part of an occasional series in which SPANK THE MONKEY goes to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them

Cidade de Garoa: that’s the affectionate name Brazilians have for São Paulo. “City of Drizzle.” Fernando Meirelles would have had a much less violent film on his hands if he’d set City Of God here, mainly because most of it would have involved scenes of people sitting indoors waiting for it to stop pissing down.

On a business visit to São Paulo for a week, one of my non-work priorities – as ever – was to catch a couple of Brazilian films in situ, to get a feel for the side of their cinema that doesn’t normally make it out of the country. And it only seemed right and fitting that when I finally found a local movie at the very end of the week, in order to get there I had to walk for five minutes through one of the worst rainstorms I’ve seen in my life. But that was the least of my problems.

Globalisation’s a double-edged sword, really. On the one hand, it’s put me in a position where part of my job involves travelling abroad and talking to people about software – and doing it in what is, invariably, their second language. On the other hand, Brazil’s cinemas are as crammed with English-language product as their computers, making it hard to actually find a Brazilian film. During my week there in February 2012, the cinema listings all looked depressingly familiar, yet unfamiliar at the same time. A Invenção De Hugo Cabret. As Aventuras de Tintim. Os Descendentes. Viagem 2: A Ilha Misteriosa. I found one title that looked intriguing – Cada Um Tem A Gêmea Que Merece – only to discover that it’s the Portuguese for Each One Has The Twin They Deserve, which is what they’ve chosen to call Jack And Jill.

There are Brazilian films out there: they just don’t stay in cinemas for very long. In the weeks leading up to my visit, I did my usual trick of monitoring the local cinema listings via Google, and groaning in frustration as interesting-sounding movies came and went – the dementedly stylised 2 Coelhos, or the goofy comedy As aventuras de Agamenon, o reporter. As it got to the end of the week, I was beginning to think I’d be stuck in my hotel room every night, suffering atrocities like Jackass 2 dubbed into Portuguese on telly. (Someone sat down and redubbed that film. Think about it.)

But hooray for film programmes changing over on Fridays. On my final full day in the country, a new comedy opened up in a few cinemas across Brazil: Reis e Ratos (Kings And Rats). Hence my rain-sodden journey to Cinemark Eldorado, one of those shopping mall multiplexes that most countries are riddled with these days. For reference: the self-service machines in the lobby are perfect for buying tickets with the minimum of human contact, always useful when you want to avoid explaining why you’re going to see a film in a language you don’t speak.

As I’ve explained before, the key to making this work is sticking with genre films, where you can kind of second-guess where the plot is heading and can ignore any small details embedded in the dialogue. Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of Reis e Ratos is told through its dialogue. We start off with a dateline on screen, which always helps: November 15th, 1963. An anarchist (you can tell, he’s wearing a beret) commits a terrorist atrocity with a bomb (you can tell, it’s got a big alarm clock on the front). Communism appears to be somehow involved, judging from the way that the opening titles flip between Russian and Portuguese. From there, the film splits into two colour-coded halves: a black and white section showing what happened before the bombing, and a colour section showing what happened after.

We meet a couple of US agents based in Brazil – Troy Somerset (Selton Mello) and Major Esdras (Otávio Müller) – who are holding a briefing in a shoe shop basement. As they piece together the events leading up to the bombing, other characters are introduced: a mysterious chanteuse, a communist junkie informer, and a radio DJ who appears to be psychically picking up messages from Russian High Command. After the bombing (closely followed by the Kennedy assassination, which may or may not be related), even more people join the cast – a ship full of rebelling sailors (including the familiar face of Seu Jorge), and a pair of assassins who seem to have been hired to bring the film to a close by killing off some of the loose ends.

The assassins highlight the main problem with this film for a non-Portuguese speaker – I had no idea what the hell was going on. If they hadn’t murdered a couple of the characters, I couldn’t have told you we were near the end of the story. The whole film feels like a series of events without any real connecting tissue, other than the same people being involved in them. I subsequently discovered, through a bit of post-viewing research, that this is all meant to be leading up to the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état – the sailors’ revolt depicted here was one of the big events that preceded the overthrow of President João Goulart. Because Reis e Ratos has a comparatively low budget, the coup takes place entirely offscreen, which is how I missed it. If I’d been aware of that at the time, I might have appreciated the film more.

It’s not painful to watch, though. Writer/director Mauro Lima keeps it all moving along at a fair pace, assisted by a terrific pastiche jazz score from Lima and Caetano Veloso. And Bebel Gilberto’s end title song gives you something pretty to hum on the way out. But I think I’ll need to add ‘historical caper movies’ to ‘documentaries’ on my list of Films That Don’t Work When You Don’t Understand What Anyone’s Saying.

Seeing Reis e Ratos on a Friday night, when I knew I was leaving Brazil on the Saturday afternoon, led me to believe that I’d just be catching the one film on this trip. Unless… what about the plane? With eleven hours of long-haul flying to look forward to, maybe there was a Brazilian in-flight movie that could stretch out this article a bit more?

Well, that might have been the case if I hadn’t been flying Air France. Their concession to the flight’s country of origin was just one Brazilian movie, a 2005 production with English subtitles. Those subtitles should theoretically bar O Coronel e o Lobisomem (The Colonel And The Werewolf) from membership of the Monoglot Movie Club, but it has two things in its favour. First, there are some overlaps in personnel between this film and Reis e Ratos. Secondly, the subtitles are so bonkers that it’s virtually an unsubtitled film anyway.

One of those personnel overlaps is producer Paula Lavigne: given how prominently her name appears in the Reis e Ratos trailer, we have to assume that she’s well known for these sorts of comedies. (She’s also the ex-wife of Reis composer Caetano Veloso: it was either an amicable split, or one hell of an alimony deal.) The other person the films have in common is actor Selton Mello, who appears to be everywhere. Aside from these two, he was also in a trailer for the forthcoming Billi Pig which preceded the main feature at the Cinemark Eldorado. He’s got a certain Everyman quality to his face, which may explain why in 2009 he was cast in the role of London’s most famous (and most unfortunate) Brazilian expat.

O Coronel e o Lobisomem is based on a popular novel, which has been filmed a few times. The Colonel in question is Colonel Ponciano de Azeredo Furtado (Diogo Vilela), who’s locked in a courtroom battle to keep his property from the clutches of his former servant, Pernambuco Nogueira (Selton Mello). The Colonel’s explanation of why he should be allowed to keep his estate is incredibly long-winded, starting in childhood and taking in the story of his whole life, but basically it boils down to one very simple thing: Nogueira shouldn’t be allowed in court in the first place, because he’s a werewolf.

It’s a lightly whimsical tale – despite its Gothic trappings, there’s never any real sense of threat or danger involved – and it’s entertainingly told. But on the copy currently being shown by Air France, the subtitles continually drag you out of the story. You could charitably suggest that the berserk use of language is deliberate, to enhance the fantastical setting: but to me, it looks suspiciously like these are machine-translated amateur subtitles that have been swiped from the internet for use on an unsubbed copy. Even if you haven’t seen the film, slapping the subtitle file into Notepad and just reading the subs raw is a revelation. Whether it’s the Colonel’s attempts at chatup lines (“Nice pair of protuberances, my lady!”), or his manservant’s analysis of a potential suitor (“A chair polisher supplied with great parts… it’s a very ostentatious instrumental”), there’s a huge amount of fun to be had, even before you get to the regrettable birdfighting scenes around the 45 minute mark. “I almost regret to deliver my cock to the murdering fury of the doctor’s cock.”

But based on this sample of two, it would seem that Paula Lavigne has a problem getting her films to end properly. Although in this case, I suspect it’s down to the source novel. Really, once you’ve set up the conflict between the Colonel and Nogueira, it can only go one of two ways: either Nogueira is a werewolf, or the Colonel is a nutcase. Which is true? As soon as that’s resolved, there’s nowhere for the story to go, barring a sweetly daft coda. Still, as in-flight entertainment goes, it’s enjoyable enough, and not worth getting too worked up about: as the Colonel himself says, “calm down, man, don’t waste your candle with a bad defunct.” (I had to rewind the film at the end to make sure I’d read that line right.)

We’re not completely starved for Brazilian cinema in Britain, of course: but since City Of God, the films we’ve been getting over here have all been heavy dramatic efforts full of favelas and exit wounds. It would be nice to also see something of the lighter side of the country’s output, like the two examples I’ve talked about here. If the BBFC website is to be believed, there has never been a UK commercial release of a single film with Selton Mello in it. Maybe that would be a good place to start.

Spank The Monkey hopes that everyone appreciates how much self-control it took to write an article about Brazilian cinema without resorting to the inevitable gag about artistically shaved pubes. Except for there, of course. Bugger.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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