Once Upon a Time Tiradentes: Gomes Delivers Exceptional, Unique Biopic on Brazil’s Crusader of Enlightenment
Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes tackles eighteenth century revolutionary Joachim Jose da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) for his latest film Joachim, which is a more insistently inscrutable portrait of its subject than one could possibly predict, especially considering the succinctly abrupt title. Episodic, partially invented, and perhaps more effective as a glimpse of a particularly cruel landscape during a detrimental period, the film explores a man who works at a Portuguese outpost apprehending gold smugglers in the name of Queen Maria I, until he suddenly gets woke after a series of significant events and creates a movement establishing Brazilian independence, envisioning a world of equals amongst men in a land free from the Portuguese colonialists. To describe the film would suggest a boorish exercise in miserabilism and degradation, or perhaps a stuffy costume drama extolling the heroism of a national figure. Gomes supersedes these expectations with an idiosyncratic and fascinating composite of a man we do not actually get to know, even eluding the direct significance of his successes and failures. Instead, Gomes conjures a mood and ambience pertaining to one man’s experiences with discontent and injustice, a man who comes to acknowledge the inherent wrong in the system her serves.
In 18th century Brazil, Joaquim (Julio Machado) is a second lieutenant charged with capturing hold smuggles and maintaining integrity by not accepting bribes. He’s been biding his time for a promotion, which will then allow him to afford to buy is lover, Preta (Isabel Zuaa) out of slavery from a master she’s eager to get away from. Before such an event happens, Joaquim is dispatched on a special assignment to locate a new gold mine, a dangerous feat in jungles infested with jaguars and rivers teeming with piranhas. Before his trip, Preta stabs her owner and runs off into the wilderness, making Joaquim’s necessity to find gold so he can obtain the promotion and then assemble a search party for her even more desperate. His troubled experiences in the search forces Joaquim to realize the injustice and oppression exacted by the colonialists.
Minimalism is too simple a concept with which to describe Joaquim, which is structured tightly around a main protagonist with whom the audience will undoubtedly feel estranged by, a technique not unlike Gomes’ last film, the 2012 Once Upon a Time Veronica, a psychologically complex film about a woman in modern day Recife. The film opens like a blue-tinted palette of the more horrific side of Paul Gaugin, with Joachim’s rotting head on a stake as his omniscient narration rather mockingly informs us of his contributions to Brazil’s history, and his infamy in every classroom in the country.
Daringly, Gomes immediately shies away from anything representing iconicity as regards the character of Tiradentes, instead showcasing a man who lived as selfishly as all his peers until, at least as this film supposes, some personal events formulated a change of ambition. Likewise, Julio Machado gives a subtle, decidedly unfussy performance as man whose real ambitions are evident by his desperation for self-preservation and a sense of entitlement for a promotion he sees peers receiving, perhaps undeservedly.
Sensuality, as in Veronica, is also depicted in surprising ways, most obviously in Joaquim’s illicit relationship with the slave, Preta, a compelling performance from Isabel Zuaa who uses her body to inspire her lover to buy her for himself as a way to aid her desire to escape and avoid the constant rape at the hands of a current repugnant master. Degradingly nicknamed Blackie, a term which Joaquim seems to use to infer his affection, she vehemently corrects him when the tables are turned later in the film, and her escape has led to reinstatement in her tribe. “Black is a color,” she spits. “My name is Zua.”
The performances suggest actual feelings and attraction may exist between Joaquim and Zua, but their disastrous social realities do not allow for a peaceable relationship of equality. Still, it seems this is the final straw forcing Joaquim to see humanity all around him, such as Joao’s (Welket Bungue) announcement of his wife’s aim to buy his freedom. Initially dismayed, because this means Joao can no longer assist Joaquim track down the gold he so desperately needs to find to raise his rank to First Lieutenant, he’s able to recognize the terrible oppression being waged.
In the final third of the film, Gomes explores Joaquim’s change-of-heart through a series of idealistic statements which are comedic in their facetiousness about the just culture he assumes must exist in North American, where men don’t have weapons to wage wars and treat one another equally. A final, uncomfortable exchange around a dinner table wherein Joaquim aligns himself with the movement which will eventually cause his demise also plays like a daring bit of wickedness as regards expectation. DP Pierre de Kerchove (The Way He Looks, 2014) concocts a sun-soaked culture in transition, a far cry from the film’s bleary, torrential downpour of despair, and the film’s production and costume design assist in actualizing this fractured, imaginative historical portrait.
Reviewed on February 16 at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival – Competition. 97 Mins.