The selection process is frustrating and often bewildering, but the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is still the holy grail for international films looking to break into the North American market. Sure, it has its flaws, but what other award offers more mainstream exposure for those films with the commercial handicap of subtitles? Brazil’s entry for 2006 will be Breno Silveira‘s “2 Filhos de Francisco” (Two Sons of Francisco) which by the end of October will surpass “Carandiru” as the highest domestic-grossing Brazilian film in the last 20 years. A jury comprised of seven Brazilian critics chose “2 Filhos de Francisco” over their other finalists (“Casa de Areia” by Andrucha Waddington and “Quase Dois Irmaos” by Lucia Murat) with the belief that it has the best chance of being nominated for an Oscar.
In an interview with indieWIRE, Leonardo Monteiro de Barros (partner of co-producer Conspiracao Filmes) explained that “2 Filhos de Francisco” is “the natural candidate, because we have a tradition in Brazil that the most successful film, the biggest event, gets the nomination. We’ve had fantastic reviews and huge commercial success.” This isn’t the first taste of success for Barros and Conspiracao – their 2000 film “Eu Tu Eles” (Me You Them) was picked up by Sony and 2003’s “O Homem do Ano” (The Man of the Year) made it to the Berlinale – but Barros admitted that “this is our first blockbuster.” In only seven weeks of release, “2 Filhos de Francisco” had reached four million spectators (far surpassing Conspiracao’s goal of two million), and ticket sales are still going strong. Barros also likes to point out that in dollar terms, “2 Filhos de Francisco” has already outdone “Carandiru,” due to the fact that the Brazilian currency is stronger than it was a few years ago.
Box office nitpicking aside, “2 Filhos de Francisco”‘s family-friendly content allows it to tap into an audience that previous hits, like “Cidade de Deus” (City of God), did without. The film follows the lives of the popular sertaneja (a type of Brazilian folk music) brother duo Zeze di Camargo and Luciano and their rise from poverty to fame. Not only is family portrayed as the core element in the boys’ lives, but their father Francisco is shown as a sort of hero who was largely responsible for their chart-topping success. The film mixes nostalgia with a feel-good story, slick cinematography, and of course, plenty of loved songs by Zeze di Camargo and Luciano.
Barros explained that it was Zeze di Camargo and Luciano themselves who originally conceived “2 Filhos de Francisco,” pitching their life story to Sony Music and then Sony Pictures Brazil. The brothers were extensively involved in the process of making the film: they served as co-producers and their family made frequent visits to the set. The script was developed by Luciano’s company, ZCL Producoes, while Conspiracao shared film production with Sony (Globo Filmes also participated). Sony Pictures holds the latin rights and Conspiracao is currently shopping the film around to foreign markets.
“Our biggest priority right now is to secure North American distribution,” said Barros. “We’re talking with sales agents and distributors, and the initial reaction from Americans is that the film is very, very good.” But can a film based on the lives of celebrities unknown outside of Brazil find an international audience? “It’s true that sometimes films don’t travel,” admitted Barros, “but in this case I think it will appeal a lot.” He cited three reasons to hope for success in the U.S. First, the film “is an amazing true story”; second, the story of people overcoming poverty and achieving success by their own talent and hard work reflects ‘the American Dream’; and third, the family represents strong values and attitudes.'” Whether “2 Filhos de Francisco” has the potential to attract American viewers, Sony Pictures Classics is betting that another Brazilian film, “Casa de Areia” (“House of Sand”, which Barros also produced) will be able to sell tickets. It was one of the acquisitions made at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
As for “2 Filhos de Francisco”‘s future, its reign at the domestic box office certainly cannot hurt. “It’s always good to have a big success, because success attracts success,” said Barros. “We have two films in development with Columbia for 2006, and we’re looking forward to collaborating with other distributors in Brazil.” A nod from the Oscars would also raise Conspiracao’s profile, but at this point the chances of being nominated are too uncertain to call (though the film’s happy ending and conventional narrative fit in well with the type of foreign fare the Academy seems to appreciate). “We would love to do an Oscar and Golden Globe campaign with an American distributor,” said Barros, “but at the end of the day it’s up to the distributors.”
Vida de Menina: Brazilian History Through the Eyes of a Girl
Another film catching local attention is Helena Solberg‘s “Vida de Menina” (Life of a Girl), based on the childhood diary of Helena Morley. It shares many thematic elements with “2 Filhos de Francisco,” yet “Vida de Menina” takes place nearly a century earlier – shortly after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, starting in 1893. “Vida de Menina” finds its protagonist, descendent of English Protestants, living among her Catholic relatives in the mining town of Diamantina. While she doesn’t necessarily understand everything that happens around her, Helena takes to writing about her experiences in the town – from her aristocratic relatives and their disdain for her modest upbringing, to life on her grandmother’s plantation with their former slaves. “Vida de Menina” swept the awards at 2004’s Festival de Gramado (the most important festival for launching national films), and audiences are responding well to the film’s slice-of-life portrayal of a young republic. Considering Brazil’s rich history, there should be plenty more opportunities for filmmakers to search for what makes Brazil unique.
[ Michael Gibbons is filing occasional Dispatches from Brazil for indieWIRE. He is currently based in Sao Paulo. ]