They say soccer (or football as it's known everywhere except in the United States) is the world's game and it's easy to see why. With the only equipment necessary being a ball and a space to play on, it remains one of the most accessible sports across the globe, giving hope to anyone of any class, creed or color that they too can ascend to the heights of the game and reap the rewards. But for some that journey is made even more difficult by an array of social woes that can impede progess, cut short a career or even end a life. And somewhere between the aspirations and cold hard realities, is Marcel Rasquin's "Hermano."
Recalling the gritty realism of "City of God" and the wide-eyed optimism of the "Goal!" trilogy of films, "Hermano" tracks the tale of Julio (Eliú Armas) and his adopted brother Daniel (Fernando Moreno), both exceedingly skilled players who are leading their poor La Cienze barrio team in Venezuela to championship heights. And while they both share a common dream of playing professionally, on everything else, the two are walking down divergent paths. The handsome and wordly Julio is discovering the pleasures of female companionship (one particularly graphic exchange of dialogue has him describing the pleasures of a rusty trombone), but he's also dabbling in drugs and doing odd jobs for the local neighborhood thug. Meanwhile, the more homely looking and shy Daniel pines after a local girl, but stays on the straight and narrow, focused on being the best player, son and brother he can be. But of course, circumstances will test their resolve to each other and the sport.
When their mother is accidentally gunned down in the street, unfortunately caught in the midst of battle over a pair of soccer shoes that were stolen from Daniel, it sets off a chain reaction of events. Having witnessed it was one of his own teammates who killed his mother, Daniel has to carry the knowledge inside him, knowing that if Julio finds out, he might do something rash that will ruin both their futures. But Julio is scarred and deeply hurt by the loss of his mother, and with the only father figure to him being the crime world leader, he begins to drift away both from his brother and from soccer as well. Now add to this a scout from the pro team in Caracas with his eyes on the pair, and you have a boiling pot of ideas, drama and themes.
But Rasquin and co-writer Rohan Jones don't know when to quit. Teen pregnancy, abortion and an extra-marital affair also tossed into a plot that doesn't seem to know a good melodramatic twist it can't use in favor of moving the increasingly thin story along (particularly in the second and third acts). And thus, the soccer in the film becomes largely pushed to the side, for a movie that bears a lot of wounded emotion on top of an increasingly paint-by-numbers and predictable narrative. And naturally, everything will come to a head in one-big-game-that-will-change-their-lives-forever.
However, even with the soap opera theatrics and endless number of Important Things it wants to address (though, curiously, there never any kind of broader political or social message other life in a slum is hard) there is a sincerity at the core of "Hermano" that can't be denied. Rasquin truly captures the feel of barrio life, in a depiction that feels authentic and never exploitative. In fact, while the helmer certainly shows the darker underbelly of those neighborhoods, he contrasts it with images of just how beautiful the contryside of Venezuela really is, lying within sight, like a beacon to a better life. However, in his quest to establish and then hammer the point over and over — that the lack of options in the barrios leaves very little to young people other than lives of drugs, crime or worse — "Hermano" often errs in favor of leading the audience by the hand into these realizations, usually with anvil-sized force, rather than letting these beats and moments play out with more subtlety.
And thus "Hermano," is one part sports story, and another part social issues drama that can never quite balance the tone it's going for. And a last minute shift — a Hail Mary throw for a tragic/bittersweet ending — only highlights the lack of confidence Rasquin has in his own abilties to draw his conclusions as a director and in the audience as well. It's a cheap manuver that also sells short the performances by the two leads who are unaffected and real in the way the movie fails to be for most the picture. But they are also the saving grace of the film too, keeping the proceedings grounded even as they threaten to spin out of control into slum drama porn. But even with that, "Hermano" gets a yellow card, and should be thankful it didn't get another that would have taken it out of the game. [C]