Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Man of the Year (Conspiração Filmes, Warner Bros. Brasil, Estúdios Mega, Brasil Telecom, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, October 14 Charles and I screened an interesting Brazilian movie from 2003 called The Man of the Year, which came out through an intriguing outfit called filmmovement.com, which among other things runs a film-of-the-month club in which they send members a new DVD of a foreign-made or American independent movie. This one turned up in a library sale and the blurb on the DVD cover compared the movie to the nihilistic Brazilian masterpiece City of God, but the two films really have little in common except they’re both set in (or around) Rio de Janeiro and deal with crime. Directed by José Henrique Fonseca from a script by Rubem Fonseca (the director’s father) based on a novel called O Matador by Patricia Melo, the film begins as a sort of black comedy and ends up being a surprisingly successful reworking of both classic U.S. gangster films from the early 1930’s (notably Little Caesar) and some of the most recent efforts in the same genre (the later reels of The Man of the Year owe quite a lot to the 1983 quasi-remake of Scarface). The central character is a Brazilian nobody named Máiquel Jorge (Murilo Benecios), who just before the film begins made a bet on a soccer game with a friend named Robinson (Perfeito Fortuna) in which he promised that if his team lost Máiquel would have his black hair dyed blond. (There’s no indication of what Robinson would have had to do if Máiquel’s team had won.) He goes through with it and immediately falls in love — or at least lust — with the hairdresser who does his dye job, Cledir (Cláudia Abreu, the director’s wife and virtually the only person in the cast I’d ever heard of before), and he asks her out on a date. Only before they get together he stops at the bar where both he and Robinson hang out, wanting to meet Robinson and show him he went through with the bet. Robinson isn’t there, but a nasty character named Suel (Wagner Moura) is. Suel takes an instant dislike to Our Hero and calls him a “fag,” and Máiquel calls him outside the bar for a fight. The next day Máiquel grabs a gun and hunts down Suel, shooting and killing him — Fonseca filho shoots the actual murder in a rather odd, gauzy style that at first made me wonder if this was just supposed to be Máiquel’s dream, but no-o-o-o-o, it’s a real story event. 

Máiquel, who’s never done anything even remotely illegal before, is scared shitless that he’ll be arrested for the murder; instead, everyone in the neighborhood comes up to him and congratulates him for eliminating such an awful person as Suel, and to Máiquel’s astonishment even two police officers, instead of apprehending him, shake his hand and congratulate him for ridding the neighborhood of a particularly nasty crook. Máiquel finds that killing Suel has made him a hero among his peers, and he starts a relationship with Cledir that’s somewhat hampered when the late Suel’s 15-year-old girlfriend Erica (Nátalia Lage) turns up on the doorstep of Máiquel’s apartment and insists that now that he’s killed her boyfriend, it’s his moral duty to take her in and give her room and board. Also one of the neighbors brings over a piglet with the intent that Máiquel will keep it for a while, fatten it up and then make a big celebratory meal out of it. Instead Máiquel decides to make it a pet, naming it “Bill” after U.S. President Bill Clinton, who happened to visit Brazil around this time and get himself photographed on Brazilian TV. He has a bit of a problem with Bill’s (the pig) penchant for chewing up his sneakers, but for the most part he has a pretty good life going except when he has to chase out Erica so he and Cledir can have sex. Máiquel’s next problem comes when he gets a toothache and can’t afford a dentist; he finds one named Dr. Carvalho (Jorge Dória) who, having heard of Máiquel’s reputation fro killing Suel, says he’ll treat Máiquel for free — if Máiquel will kill the person Dr. Carvalho believes dishonored his daughter by raping her. (Later we meet the daughter and, predictably, she turns out to be the sort of person who will do it with just about anybody — though Máiquel at least has the good sense to stay out of her clutches.) Máiquel not only commits the murder but takes over the job at a pet store the victim was working before he was killed. Carvalho then invites Máiquel to meet with two of his 1-percenter friends, and the three basically hire Máiquel to knock off anyone they deem too evil, crooked or just plain inconvenient to live. 

Eventually Máiquel and the gang he puts together to accomplish these murders, backed by Carvalho and his friends, form what’s ostensibly an above-ground “private security” company but is really an old-style “protection” racket, and the company is so sensationally successful that the Rio Chamber of Commerce names Máiquel its entrepreneur of the year and a song about him, “O Matador” (obviously comparing him to a bullfighter), becomes a hit. Only if we’ve seen enough gangster movies in the past we know something is going to derail Máiquel from his ill-gotten success, and that something is his wife Cledir, whom he married after he got her pregnant — and he moved in with Cledir and her parents while still keeping his old apartment as a love-nest with Erica. Cledir asked Máiquel if she could keep Bill the pig, and one evening Máiquel returns home to find that Cledir has open-roasted his pet and put an apple in its mouth to serve it. A furious Máiquel attacks Cledir and bashes her head against the wall, accidentally killing her. Then he buries the body in the backyard of one of his confederates. He tries to console himself with Erica, but in the meantime Erica has been converted by a minister running the Brazilian equivalent of a mega-church and spouts Biblical verses all day and talks about entering a convent. (Yeah, right.) Ultimately Máiquel falls when the man whose backyard he’s buried Cledir’s body in gets busted by the police for having two kilos of cocaine in his car. The cops dig up the man’s backyard searching for more drugs, find Cledir’s body, put two and two together and go out to arrest Máiquel — only in the meantime Máiquel has figured out what’s going on and decides to make his escape by simply dyeing his hair back to its natural black shade, thinking that the cops are going to be looking for a blond. The End.

Charles was upset by the ending, not only by a factual glitch (Máiquel handles the black hair dye with bare hands — the dye would turn your skin at least temporarily black as well, which is why all kits for dyeing hair darker contain disposable gloves and any cosmetologist dyeing someone’s hair would use gloves) but also because one expects a story like this to end with the cathartic death of the gangster à la Little Caesar and both Scarfaces. I wondered if I could have thought of a better ending, and my idea would have been to rip off the 1950 film The Gunfighter: Máiquel is killed by a younger, hungrier punk who wants to steal his bad-ass “rep,” and the young man who killed Máiquel would in turn be hailed as a hero and follow a similar story arc until his own demise at the hands of a still younger gangster who wanted to hijack his rep, and so on … Nonetheless, The Man of the Year is a refreshing film, even though it’s a souvenir of a society in which all the conventional moral rules have broken down, lawbreaking (at least some lawbreaking) is celebrated and both the police and the public at large have accepted the idea that it takes some amount of extra-legal violence to protect people against other forms of extra-legal violence. It’s a genuinely amusing black comedy for the first half and a grim Scarface-like (either one) tale of a psycho gangster getting his comeuppance in the second, and it’s got at least one intriguing credit: the music is by Dado Villa-Lobos, whose imdb page identifies him as “guitar player for Legião Urbano, one of the most important Brazilian rock bands,” but does not say whether or not he’s related to the great Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. I quite enjoyed The Man of the Year and can only wonder how many other oddball gems there are in Film Movement’s catalogs!