Film Review: Nise: The Heart of Madness

A heartwarming but unsentimental story of battles fought and won.
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Imagine the polar opposite of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and you have something like the brilliant, kindly heroine of Nise–The Heart of Madness. A pioneering figure well-known in Brazil, Nise da Silveira led a rebellious but full life and the film focuses on a short but definitive part of it—her stay in a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric hospital, where she fought and won a battle against the prejudices of men and of science by daringly treating her patients as human beings.

Elegantly combining a triumph-over-adversity yarn with a sensitive exploration of the redemptive power of artistic creation, the film’s nicely understated humanity—combined with a healthy dose of the feel-good factor —meant that Rio audiences voted Nise their favorite film of 2015. The film’s appeal extends beyond its country of origin.

Wisely, director Roberto Berliner focuses on a short period of da Silveira’s life, the time in the early ’40s when, fresh out of prison for her Marxist beliefs, she spent time in a Rio psychiatric institution revealing that for her patients, artistic creation could be therapy—as well as producing some damn fine art. The opening scene has Nise (the high-profile Brazilian actress Gloria Pires) bang repeatedly onto a loud metal door in order to gain entrance to the hospital where she has come to work, the scene clearly if clumsily prefiguring the struggles to come in a world—like most worlds at the time—dominated by male prejudice.

Once inside, Nise is appalled to attend a conference in which her male colleagues are extolling the virtues of electrotherapy and ice-pick lobotomies. Refusing to participate in such barbarism (not uncommon in the United States, too, in the 1940s and ’50s), Nise is downgraded to the occupational therapy section. (As she’s also a Marxist, the move is doubly convenient for the establishment.)

Like a Florence Nightingale of the mind, Nise sets about cleaning up first the premises, then the language of the nurses—forbidding the use of terms like "nutcase” and "animal" and replacing them somewhat disingenuously with "client." Then, using a stocking and a rag, in one effective scene she sets her patients to play and, encouraged by her colleague Almir (Felipe Rocha), to paint and so bring their unconscious minds into the open.

Sensibly, the script focuses not so much on da Silveira as on the results of her efforts—in other words on the clients, psychotics all, including Emygdio (Claudio Jaborandy), the mighty Adelina (Simone Mazzer) and the particularly threatening Lucio (Roney Villela). All performances are plausible and affecting. Berliner shares the compassion and is careful to give each character a story and an artistic style: just as da Silveira herself would, he puts these people at the forefront of her story. He often does so with real grace and sensitivity, as, for example, in a scene where one patient, childlike, learns what a paintbrush is for, or in another, on a day trip where the patients all dress up and the sunlight coming through the trees plays on their uplifted features in a moving index of psychological release.

Buoyed by André Horta’s often documentary-style camerawork, the script is respectful of the truth, refusing to exaggerate for the sake of the drama even when there are multiple opportunities to do so. Nise is perhaps a little too saintlike in her unruffled dignity as she deals with the provocations of her male adversary, Dr. Cesar (Michel Bercovitch): "My instrument is a brush, not an ice pick," she sternly reminds him in one of the stagier moments. But she is never superhumanly so, in a controlled and austere performance by Pires which seems designed to allow those surrounding her to flourish: Her frustrations are quietly dealt with in aside scenes with her husband. Some scenes pulsate with real risk, as time and again Nise puts her theories to the test without knowing how her schizophrenic clients will react.

One of her patients, Fernando Diniz (Fabrício Boliveira), went on to become a well-known painter: His image and those of her other patients touchingly open the end credits, following an extract from an interview with the real Nise, now elderly, playfully calling the cameraman a nutcase.

The final scene is effectively a seal of approval for Nise’s work from the art establishment, in the figure of Pedrosa (Charles Fricks). Its recognition, which the character doesn’t need—she’s already earned it through the movie—and the closing, triumphal scenes featuring the Brazilian art world applauding Nise feel like a cheap and false coda, given the richness of what has come before. "This is not just medical, it’s artistic and political too," Pedrosa reminds us, but anyone who has just watched this potent but delicate film will hardly need reminding.--The Hollywood Reporter

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