[original title: O Filme da Minha Vida]
This Brazilian film comes with quite the pedigree. The story is based on the book Un padre de pélicula (Um pai de cinema; A Distant Father) by prize-winning Chilean novelist Antonio Skármeta. 78-year-old Skármeta has a soft spot for films: he directed two films himself in the 1980s and he acted in several, and he also served on the jury of both the Berlin and Venice film festivals. Most importantly, the Oscar-nominated film Il Postino was based on his work.
I has been said that it was Skármeta himself who suggested that director Selton Mello bring his novel to the silver screen. Both Skármeta and Mello, by the way, play characters in this film. In the case of Mello, who is an experienced actor, it is actually quite a substantial supporting role.
Tony has a happy childhood in 1950s’ Brazil. He loves his parents, his parents love him and each other, and although they are not rich they seem to be getting by. After finishing school, Tony can even go to a university. But when he returns home with his teaching diploma a few years later, everything changes. Without an explanation, the father leaves the family, presumably returning to his native France.
The story catches up with Tony ca. one year after this event. He lives with his mother and works as a teacher at the local school. But Tony, still very young, struggles with his identity, with his place in life. His father’s disappearance has not only robbed him of a current male role-model, it also undermines everything he was sure of – about his father, about himself, about his childhood, about life. A constant, mild insomnia is one symptom of this inner insecurity. At the same time, Tony feels attracted to not one, but two local girls, and it seems like he cannot move forward emotionally, or even sexually, since the role-model loss makes it impossible for him to figure out what it means to be a man. His surname, Terranova, is a symbol for this “empty” person looking to be discovered, populated with a personality and cultivated with ideas.
Some issues get resolved in this film, but the film’s message is that stories are not only about the beginning and the end, but that the stuff in the middle is also interesting. In other words: the journey can be more important than the destination.
The film has many strong elements, but also a lot of weak spots. The narrative may be the weakest. Adapting a novel for the screen is always a daunting task. And as is often the case, the pacing suffers as a result in this film. For example, Tony’s love-triangle feels poorly set up and rather rushed, as does the film’s key twist.
Likewise, I would have preferred to have a few more minutes showing Tony’s emotional retardation – the cul-de-sac in which his adulthood has ended up in because of his father’s disappearance. And I would have preferred less flashbacks, whose only purpose was to show (again and again) that Tony’s childhood was happy and that nothing could have foreshadowed what was to come. Although I will admit that the high frequency of childhood flashbacks, which are often daydreams, could be justified by saying they are a symptom of Tony’s inability to complete his growing-up.
Another element that is meant to symbolise Tony’s emotional immaturity is the fact that his male students (14 to15 years of age) see him more as one of them rather than a figure of authority. There is generally no lack of symbols in this film – another symbol of boyhood vs. adulthood being the question who drives a bicycle vs. who drives a motorcycle at what point in the story. The whole (im)maturity angle also lies at the bottom of the film’s somewhat unfortunate obsession with sex.
The film has a very nice soundtrack, and conjures up a 1963-setting by a very competent use of locations, props, and costumes. The film also looks great thanks to the work of cinematographer Walter Carvalho (Central Station). It is a very “cinematic” version of 1963, maybe a bit too neat and too clean, but lovely to look at nonetheless. Talking of “cinematic”: there is also a story element in this film that is a small love letter to cinema and to film. It boils down to Tony looking for replacement role models in films.
The acting is also great. Tony is played Johnny Massaro, an Adam-Driver-type young man who is not just a very good actor but is also able to carry a film which is largely resting on his shoulders. All other roles are merely supporting roles, but the most important of those are filled with equally good actors: apart from Mello these are Bruna Linzmeyer and Bia Arantes as the potential love interests, Ondina Clais as Tony’s mother, and most importantly Vincent Cassel as Tony’s father. It is Cassel’s involvement that will probably serve as the easiest promotion angle in international markets.
Yet, despite all its strong elements, there is something about the weak narrative and the inaccessible characters that dampens the enjoyment of this film considerably. We hardly ever understand anyone’s motivation in this film; Tony in particular remains an enigma as his father-figure problem is not properly set up or paced well. You do not feel any connection to him, and this makes it hard to sympathise with him in many scenes. So, in the end, a 6-out-of-10 rating is the result for a film that had the potential to do much better.