This 1986 Brazilian musical has the look of a '40's big-studio musical, but as directed by Ray Guerra, better known to international audiences for his previous film Erendira it's also got more than a few idiosyncrasies, some wonderfully Hollywood, some Brechtian and some typically Brazilian. This movie is based on a stage-musical by Brazil's Chico Buarque, a famous composer, singer, poet and writer. He has also been referred to as a samba king, His samba is not the loud and energetic carnival samba, but samba canção or the lyric samba song - quite sophisticated , more lush and very melodic in style that lends itself perfectly to the demands of book musicals.
Setting this slice of lowlife in Rio at about the time of Pearl Harbor was an inspired decision, allowing director Guerra to pay homage for vintage Hollywood and invoking other classics such asCasablanca, even Cabaret with dozens of visual allusions to many others. Ópera do Malandro is a good nature romp that sizzles with its Latin rhythms and aspirations but tries to be too much of everything resulting in a film that doesn’t add up as much as the weight of its parts. But if you abandon your expectations of an orderly plot you will have a good time. The film is a vast, rambling, nostalgic expedition that celebrates of the considerable talents of author and composer Chico Buarque and choreographer Regina Miranda.
The story opens in Rio de Janeiro's bohemian district called the Lapa, where a stylish and popular, small-time thief and gambler, Max Overseas, finds himself way over his head when he becomes involved with Ludmila, the sharp, forward-thinking teenage daughter of industrialist (and fascist) Otto Strüdell. It all takes place during the time when Brazil was on the verge of deciding whether to support the Allies or the Nazis providing the story a backdrop of politics, nostalgia and light social commentary in a very similar way the Brecht did in The Three Penny Opera.
The two main protagonists Ludmila and Max represent the future , both with an obsession with the United States and its capitalism ideals, and on the opposite side we have the character of Otto Struddell (Ludmila‘s father) representing the fascists ideals. Sounds heavy for an entertainment that disguises itself as a light hearted romantic musical comedy? It certainly is, and that is precisely what defeats the complete success of this film. By focusing in so many political and social dilemmas and by not providing a strong center with the romance of Max and Ludmilla, the film feels distant at times and the story hard to follow.
Director Ruy Guerra is going for a frankly movie feel with his sets and decors. The characters are seen mostly by their surfaces, and they inhabit cheerfully phony Hollywood back-lot sets. The look is right for the movie's musical scenes, but not with the serious aspects of the film.
On the other hand, Malandro offers many wonderful and unique pleasures. The sexy choreography by world famous Regina Miranda is superb. With no submission to typical Anglo patterns, her work is more in tune with the popular and ballroom Brazilian dances. As in the opening number titled 'The Hood is the King of the Slums' in which a group of white suited hoodlums dance in formation on a moonlit street ; the unforgettable duet "I am His Woman" between Ludmilla and Margot disputing their claims to the malandro's affections, filmed from a birds eye point of view and the "The Wedding Tango" with Max's entire gang dressed in coat tails and top hats. Hundreds of dancers, 'samba passistas', acrobats and 'capoeira players' dance through the hands of Regina and the result is brilliant.
The performances range from adequate as in the case of Edson Celulari as Max Overseas, to spectacular as in the case of Claudia Ohana as Ludmilla, Fabio Sabag as Otto Struedel, Ney Latorraca as Tiger, the local chief of police and Elba Ramalho as Margot the prostitute. Also worth noting is J.C. Violla as Geni, the effeminate M.C. at the Copacabana, that owes a lot to Joel Grey’s interpretation in Cabaret.
Director Guerra provides some memorable set pieces as when Max Overseas delivers one of his musical soliloquies in a men’s room, while dancing past the row of urinals and mirrors; the bolero 'The Pain of Love' in which the prostitutes of the Copacabana convert Strudell’s latest girl from a homeless urchin to a working girl, wig and all; the climatic duet "You Who Are Part of Me" between Margot and Max with the background of an elegant pax deux between two dancers resembling the young versions of Max and Margo; and Ludmilla’s entrance in a train station, looking like Leslie Caron’s Gigi while singing 'Sentimental'.
As I said before, the musical numbers are worth the price of the ticket, but the movie doesn't provide us with fully fleshed out characters that we can truly relate to. So I guess we go to Malandro to enjoy the good parts such as the wonderful visual homage to old classic films, and wonder what this film it could have been if the creative team didn’t take themselves so seriously.
The film is available on DVD (for all regions) on www.dvdversatil.com.br