By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
THE new Brazilian film “Federal” by Erik de Castro, that opened nationwide on more than 70 screens across Brazil on Oct. 29, is a labor of love that had been percolating in the head of its director since he was 16 in 1987.
Twenty-three years later and after several rewrites at the Sundance Institute in the US, “Federal” has finally made it to the big screen. It is the story of a small group of federal and civil police officers in Brasilia who are hot on the trail of international drug trafficker Carlos ‘Beque’ Batista (Eduardo Dussek). Led by a serious yet affable Vital (Carlos Alberto Riccelli), the group includes a young and idealistic federal agent Dani (Selton Mello), a street cop called Lua (Cesario Augusto) and a feisty federal agent named Rocha (Christovam Neto).
De Castro is wildly ambitious in trying to set out telling a story that will illustrate how drug dealers are linked to corrupt politicians in high places, but he fails to paint a convincing picture. Instead, he has produced an interesting look into the lives of policemen, some good others corrupt, in their daily fight against the menace of drugs.
The opening scenes of policemen looking over the body of a murdered drug dealer in the garden of a posh house could have been filmed anywhere in Brazil, but soon De Castro has policemen chasing after another suspect in the satellite city of Ceilandia in an action sequence that involves the traditional dance/martial art that originated with Brazilian slaves called “capoeira”.
The director, who is a native of Brasilia, filmed the entire movie on location in super-16mm that was later blown-up to 35mm. This shows. At the Parkshopping cinema that I watched “Federal” at, the screen was left with a blank space on either side, as the projected film did not fill up the screen entirely. The use of traditional film, instead of digital video, gives the film a cinematic feel that De Castro was aiming for. One reviewer of the film however complained that the scenes looked washed-out and monochromatic, compared to the sweeping and brighter shots of Brasilia’s famous skyline that the director scatters throughout the movie to constantly remind us just where this police thriller is taking place. I found his lighting to be very naturalistic, giving the film a realism that is often missing from other Brazilian films, especially those produced by Globo Filmes that tend to be super-glossy and perfect looking.
Unfortunately, the film’s acting and script deserve less praise. Some of the actors either overacted their parts, such as Michael Madsen as the American Drug Enforcement Agency agent Sam Gibson, or under-acted their parts such as Selton Mello did with Dani. Here the script is also very much to blame, with Madsen saying such clichéd things as: “Brazil has the best coffee in the world!” and “I’ve been in Brazil for several days now and I haven’t even fucked a Brazilian woman yet!” His forced hilarity was over the top and made me squirm in embarrassment. He came across as the stereotypical obnoxious American: Loud, tacky and over-confident.
On the other side of the spectrum, Melo played Dani so low-key that at times it seemed like he was on tranquilizers and sleep-walking his way through the story. Melo is a big star in Brazil, so having him in an independent and relatively low budget film like “Federal”, which was produced on a budget of R$5 million (approximately $2.9 million), is considered a coup of sorts. But not only is Dani moping throughout the movie, he also has an annoying conversation with Vital near the beginning of the film after he sees that a suspect has been tortured for hours by his civilian police colleagues.
“How can we justify this torture?” Dani asks Vital.“I think that if I had been a policeman during the military dictatorship I would have joined the guerrillas and fought on their side,” he says, referring to the 1964-1985 period during which Brazil was under strict military control and Marxist guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped diplomats.
“This is our job, this is what we do as policemen,” Vital replies.
I felt like Dani needed a slap in the face from Vital, and a good tongue-lashing. While I’m sure the Federal Police is full of principled and honest agents, Dani’s constant whining and depression throughout the movie made one want someone in the film to suggest to him that maybe he wasn’t cut-out to be a federal agent after all!
Script problems aside, it is clear from seeing “Federal” and from talking with the director (see my interview with him in the next entry), that De Castro loves Brasilia and is trying to showcase the city in this film. I like the capital too but it would have been better if De Castro had been subtler in including shots of the city in the story.
For instance, twice in the film Dani is shown standing next to his motorcycle at the JK Bridge that links the Plano Piloto to the Lago Sul district of Brasilia. This is the most beautiful bridge in Brasilia, and one of the most unique in the world. Its graceful white arches stretching across the Paranoa Lake have become an iconic landmark of the capital. But we already know that Dani lives in a small apartment, which if you live here would know that the superquadras that house most apartments here are not really near the bridge. Which brings me to my point: The shots of the bridge seem gratuitous and do not appear as a convincing part of the narrative.
De Castro also finds it necessary to show us just how human each of our policemen are by showing that each one either has a vigorous sex life or not. At the cinema that I watched “Federal” at, I heard teenagers behind me groan in desperation at some of the protracted and rather explicit sex scenes, which seemed gratuitous and did not do much to advance the story.
I did not mind those scenes so much. What bothered me were the rather sketchy performances of the bad guys: The head of the NGO, Eliezer Gallo (Adriano Siri), who also funded a church (in which he hid a drug manufacturing lab in its basement) seemed to me like a flimsy caricature of shadowy power brokers in the capital. And the reverend of the church, played by Andre Amaro, was cartoonishly funny in the way he led prayers, raising his arms and uttering foolish words. It just made me laugh.
The point that “Federal” makes very well though is that Brazil has become a major trans-shipment point for drugs going from South America to Europe. The country has thousands of kilometers of extremely porous borders with Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Much of that border is in the Amazon jungle, and as such is very difficult to be policed effectively by Brazilian border guards. Just last week, Italian police announced they had seized several tons of cocaine that had been smuggled from Brazil into Italy by sea, hidden in a container of agricultural machines.
While De Castro succeeds in showing us just how corrupt or honest various anti-drug smuggling policemen can be, he utterly fails to paint a convincing picture of the relationship between international drug dealers and political leaders in Brasilia. Which is a shame really. Perhaps he can do that in “Federal 2”.
From left to right: Selton Mello as Dani and Carlos Alberto Riccelli (Vital), with Christovam Neto (Rocha) in the middle, and Cesario Augusto (Lua) behind him, in a scene from "Federal".