Thursday, December 6, 2012

HELENO: José Henrique Fonseca's bio-pic about Brazil's mid-20th-century soccer star

Who was HELENO (full name: Heleno de Freitas)? This famous syphilitic soccer star from Brazil was perhaps the first bad-boy media-darling of the sport. He predates even Pelé, let alone a late-comer like Britain's Beckham, and his warts-and-nothing-but story -- or as much of it as director and co-screenwriter (with four other collaborators) José Henrique Fonseca chooses to show us -- is a relatively interesting one.

If Fonseca, shown at right, indulges in most of the standard clichés of the genre, he does it using performers who are talented, committed and plenty gorgeous to view. He also made the smart decision to shoot the film in black-and-white, which helps enormously to capture the ambience of the mid-20th-Century world of South America (the crack cinematographer is Walter Carvalho (Central Station, Carandiru and To the Left of the Father). For a time, the filmmaker's use of impressionistic "takes" on the various events in Heleno's life -- Fonseco dashes back and forth in time and place -- helps keep us nicely off-balance, imagining that we'll be getting something more from this particular bio-pic. In a way, we finally do -- because, although those clichés keep building up, so does the strange character of our non-hero.

Heleno de Freitas came from money, studied law and could easily have led a cushy, entitled, no-sweat, upper-class life. His passion -- for women, sports, sex -- was so great (as was his temper) that he could not abide anything less than perfection or near. As Heleno, Rodrigo Santoro (above and below, from Lions Den, Che and I Love You Philip Morris) captures this crazy passion so well that you spend your viewing time alternately loving this guy and wanting to deck him.

The two main women (at least as shown here) in his life are played by Aline Moraes (above) and Angie Cepeda (below) -- who bear enough resemblance to each other to make us imagine that Heleno had quite specific tastes in the physical appearance of his women. We never see his mother in the film (though he talks to her often on the phone) but I would bet that she looked a lot like these two.

As the syphilis continues to eat away at him (the doctors knew and he knew, but he refused to do anything about it: "I don't want to be soft," he says, meaning, we guess, below the belt), his mind and body deteriorate.  The make-up artists and Santoro's willingness to lose weight combine to give us, as seen below, a surprisingly real pre-cadaver. In the sanitarium where he spends the final time, we witness some psychologically creepy stuff, as Heleno eats his press clippings off the wall. But even there, as ever, everyone continues to serve him, while he serves no one but himself.

As angry as we get with Heleno's own anger and near-constant harangues, even so, the final scene -- which flashes between this fellow's heyday and his end --  is very well done. It should bring a tear to the dryest eye of even those, like me, who care not a fig about sports of any kind. Here, the the filmmaker and his star find a visual means to address that gap between who we are and who we want to be, what we reach for as opposed to what we are able to grasp.

Heleno, from Screen Media and running just under two hours, opens tomorrow, Friday, December 7 in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. Click here and then click on THEATERS on the top line to see all specifics.

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