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Nelson Yu Lik-wai
Anthony Chau-Sang Wong,
Hip, hand-held and subversively hollow. If Nothing Else Works Out challenges you for a reason to like it - while gluing your eyes firmly to every minute.
The story follows four highly empathetic dregs of society in Sao Paulo. They meander at high speed to an inevitable bad ending and try to miss it. Leo, a journalist, has lost his job. His rent is due. The IRS is after him for wages he never received. And he has a clinically depressive plus her kid crashing at his pad. Depressive-head (Angela) has spent the electric money on 'medication.' They meet Marcin, a lovable 'middle-man' coke dealer. She has rationalised her job as 'spreading little bits of happiness.' Then there's Wilson, a cabbie wanting a psychiatrist. Nothing has worked out for any of them. But somehow everything will work out . . .
The movie starts with a quote from Rousseau: "A society is only a democracy when no-one is so rich that they can buy someone, and no-one so poor that they need sell themselves." The rest is peppered with quasi-philosophical quotes throughout. Such as, "We are taught not to steal, but we are not taught not to be stolen."
There's some clever stuff with sound and camera, and the film is genre-breaking in avoiding expected traps. But the things that set it apart are the sincerity of the acting and its dogged, if dodgy, attempt to stay true to its original premise. And did I mention a rather beautiful soundtrack as well? In fact the more I think back on it, the more I love this film. Marcin has a simple desire to be a good person even though she's not. Leo verges on being a soft touch and he knows it. Wilson barely knows what's going on. He just wants to drive his cab and collect fares.
Even Angela shows a desperate humanity in wanting the best for her son, that softens her otherwise sexy but unsympathetic persona. She desires to be checked in to rehab. She admits she can't control her urges. All four form deep bonds of affection. Who can not admire them and feel for them? There are trannies and hookers and murderous drug dealers on one side. All doing quite nicely thank you. And politicians, banks and government on the other. Both ends rich and getting richer. Both giving them no easy way out.
"What is the logic," Leo thinks to himself, "behind a poor person stealing from someone who is richer?" There's a pause, and then Leo supplies the answer roughly to our expectation: "He just wants something he can't have."
But then comes the harder question. "What is the logic behind a rich man stealing from a poor man, if he already had everything?"
It is more challenging. The government steals from him. The IRS steals from him. His employers steal from him. And, given half a chance, the cut-throat tranny at the girlie bar will steal from him. Such questions salve his conscience if only so far for he is being drawn (with his new-found friends) into increasingly illicit operations.
The 'government' is seen fleetingly in the run-up to elections. We recognise the face of President Lula. He might have been the best leader Brasil has had for a long time, but his honeymoon flavour is running out at home. Here, he is simply symbolic of 'all politicians.' (British viewers might feel a distinct resonance to the 2009 expenses scandals which similarly tarred all politicians equally.)
Marcin is endearing. Imagine someone who would genuinely help you when you are helpless late at night. She has a fragility that makes you want to take her in your arms. As if she were a child. Hold her to your breast. Protect her from the big bad world. A world that she struggles bravely to keep at bay. Not showing you her tears. She is the person you hold in your heart in a 'there but for fortune' way days after you've left the cinema. She also appeals to Leo's protective nature (though Wilson looks inclined to give her good fumble at times). Marcin's preference for girlfriends over boyfriends at least keeps some clarity in their already complicated interpersonal relationships.
Cinematography is constantly captivating. Mirroring the dislocation from life that the protagonists feel. Yet the film manages a positive quality in spite of the realist, desolate themes, making it a rare treat (even if it does seem to go on a bit too long).
"And there are no miracles, and there is something which brings us back to life I will always take with me if nothing else works out."
No fairy tale happiness stolen from make-believe of Disney blockbusters. No 'love solves all.' No collection point serviced by organised religions. But, while life remains, there is perhaps something within us that still offers options. Brasil draws on cultural roots, like the sea pounding the unforgiving shore. The drum of the beating heart. A factor infinite and unknown. The call of condomblé, the sound of one hand clapping.
There is no 'answer' when nothing, nothing else works out. But something inexpressible remains.
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