Film Review: Heleno

A<i> Raging Bull</i> for the soccer set, <i>Heleno </i>features a great performance and outstanding cinematography but a predictable screenplay.

Though a contemporary independent film produced in Brazil, Heleno owes a debt to Hollywood’s Golden Age of biopics, and not only because it is the real-life story of a 1940s sports star. The sad case of Heleno de Freitas, who became the leader of Rio de Janeiro's Botafogo football team, provides director José Henrique Fonseca with the material he needs to create a vivid though depressing portrait. Good word of mouth about the film’s style may help to generate Heleno into the success the man himself was not.

Rodrigo Santoro shines in the title role, a figure at once dislikable yet hard not to watch. Santoro goes through the rise-and-fall scenario convincingly, as the arrogant, attractive footballer who likes to boss around his teammates, manager and even his wife and girlfriends, but who does not see the trap he has set for himself. Heleno’s hubris leads to fights with his bosses and fellow players, womanizing and drinking, ignoring his young son, and living beyond his means. Fonseca depicts all this by jumping back and forth between Heleno’s early glory days and his later downward spiral—which eventually lands our anti-hero in a sanatorium to treat a debilitating venereal disease.

On the plus side, Santoro turns Heleno into a compelling figure, as opposed to a purely pitiable or repellent one. The actor apparently looks like the soccer player and he never overplays a part crying out for an operatic performance; in a nod to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Fonseca uses opera on the soundtrack in addition to the moody black-and-white camerawork. In fact, cinematographer Walter Carvalho’s chiaroscuro evokes the expressionistic films of the period during which the story takes place. At the very least, his assured, textural photography makes a distasteful subject much easier to watch.

On the debit side, the film’s other performances are adequate but not especially memorable, the production design never convinces us we are really in the 1940s or ’50s (the two decades look identical here), and the crosscutting between past and present events doesn’t help our attempt to understand Heleno, except as a pathetic man we should not emulate. Perhaps Fonseca’s failure to show Heleno on the soccer field, doing what he did best, could be the director’s way of underlining the fact that what is most important about one’s life is not career and glory.

Heleno might have been stronger by better avoiding the clichés of its genre—yet there are still benefits to this stylish work.