The common criticism leveled at biopics is that they are rarely narratively challenging, with most following a standard template that sees the story move along episodically, ticking off the events in the character’s life in a rote fashion. So some credit must be given to director José Henrique Fonseca and his four co-writers for defying convention with “Heleno,” a biopic of 1940s Brazilian football star Heleno de Freitas. However, your enjoyment of the impressionistic rather then detail-oriented portrait of the player will largely depend on how much you know about him (or not) going into the film.
Jumping back and forth through time, dipping in and out of events, don’t feel bad if your lack of knowledge about Heleno leaves you feeling a bit lost. Viewers will glean that he was an impulsive, tempestuous and (apparently) talented player, who had trouble being faithful, dreamed of playing in the World Cup, was eventually driven mad by syphilis, for which he refused to get treated, and was generally just kind of an asshole. And the latter fact is one that makes “Heleno” a movie that’s difficult to get close to. Fonseca opens the movie at the end, letting viewers see Heleno in the waning days of his life, with his brain turning to mush in a sanitorium. But for the next nearly two hours, not much of a case is made that his story is particularly tragic or that Heleno is worth caring about.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that the film completely sidesteps establishing how Heleno came to love the beautiful game, and what his talent means either to his club (who he mostly fights with), the nation or the soccer world in general. Again, there is almost nothing given in the way of context, and all one can surmise from what’s left is that Heleno was mostly unpleasant. He vacillates between two beauitful women, his wife (Aline Moraes) and a sexy lounge singer (and probably a representation of a number of real-life conquests) Diamantina (Angie Cepeda). When he’s not having sex, he’s getting into one argument or another, or testing the patience of his saintly best friend, Alberto (Erom Codeiro). Heleno routinely ignores good advice and for the much of the movie is on a single minded path to destruction.
In short, it’s hard to get too invested in his plight, not only becuase it seems he deserves everything he got, but also because Fonseca lets us know from the opening frame where his journey ends. The film wants to have it both ways, asking for storytelling freedom by assuming the audience knows who Heleno is, but it also wants to earn an emotional punch without doing the essential groundwork to make us care about this infamous player. But perhaps the most bizarre decision is leaving out any soccer setpieces almost entirely. There is one key game that is referenced a few times in the picture, with a big moment of the match marking a second act turning point, but aside from a couple of warm-ups and practices, viewers unfamiliar with Heleno de Freitas will be left wanting at least some display or recognition of his football skills. The movie mostly takes it for granted.
Even the decision to shoot in black-and-white, as gorgeous at is, seems to be counterintuitive. Set in Rio, this is the kind of movie that screams to be in color, to capture the beautiful, vibrant city in a time period we see too rarely on the big screen. And yet despite every decision that places gorgeous aesthetics and glaringly self-aware non-traditional storytelling devices at the fore, Rodrigo Santoro is very strong in the lead role, alternating between dashing, disturbing, stubborn, enraged and sexy with ease, and truly making an impression as the older, balder Heleno, whose memory and grip on reality is fading. It’s his effort that keeps the picture moving along, and at the very least makes you appreciate with a bit of head-scratching awe that producers would greenlight a movie that would have very limited appeal outside diehard soccer devotees.
There is no doubt that “Heleno” is ambitious and even spirited, but it’s also these qualities that get in the way of the movie as well. The movie is basically The Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Mad Man, but don’t be shocked if you find yourself asking just what art he was practicing in the first place. [C]