"Os Desafinados" is a long-cherished personal project from experienced director Walter Lima Jr (he began making films in 1965) and his first film in seven years -- his last was the awful "Um Crime Nobre", with Ornella Muti. "Desafinados" is so obviously a labor of love that its almost complete failure only makes our hearts sink deeper: it's hesitating, confusing, under- achieved and schmaltzy. And interminable -- 139 minutes of relentless tedium.
The title derives from Antonio Carlos Jobim+Newton Mendonça's landmark song "Desafinado" (a.k.a. "Slightly Out of Tune"), and it's a fantasy tribute to the generation of young Brazilian musicians who, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, invented a new, cool, sexy musical style -- the bossa nova -- that spread like an epidemic and still remains influential around the globe. The film is also an "inside" mea-culpa piece about the Cinema Novo generation, of which Lima was an active but not quite top-talented member. Far from being insightful (for the older generation) and revealing (for the younger), "Desafinados" just seems sloppy, muddled and lifeless.
To begin with, there are serious problems with the script. The film is a sketch collage of factual events, personal memories and notorious anecdotes with plain fiction, but everything is dead, like old jokes told by someone devitalized. There are signs of major re-cutting, with probably many scenes left out (especially in the first third) because the story moves by bumpy jumps -- but it's still endlessly long. Composite and imagined characters share a contrived co-existence. The love triangle between the characters of Rodrigo Santoro, Cláudia Abreu and Alessandra Negrini never rings true, because Negrini's character barely exists to begin with, and we can never believe ANYONE would dump gorgeous, sophisticated Abreu to go back to plain hometown girl Negrini.
Worse, there's no excuse that Lima used the tragic real fate of bossa nova pianist Tenório Jr -- who, during a 1976 tour in Buenos Aires with Vinicius de Moraes was abducted and probably assassinated under still mysterious circumstances by the Argentinian military regime; his body's still missing -- in a such a superficial, casual way. The film suddenly alters its tone from light romantic musical comedy to political tragedy but the result is phoniness. To top it all, the discombobulated denouement with Santoro in a double role is SO far-fetched and maudlin that you'll have to revise your list of top-awful film finales.
Then, there are BIG casting problems. In a film obviously made with an eye on the international market, there are supporting actors playing U.S., Argentinian and French nationals with NOT ONE of them nailing his accent right. The cast is a motley crew of non-acting musicians (Jair Oliveira, the bassist, and André Moraes, the drummer) and non-musician actors struggling to play their instruments for real, with very distracting results: Santoro's spider-like, stiff hands could never belong to a fine pianist, André Paes Leme's awkward fingers lack the agility and grace of a real guitarist's. Cláudia Abreu plays a flutist/singer and is dubbed on both counts (except when she and Santoro wreck Pixinguinha's classic "Carinhoso" with their non-singer voices). Her dubbed singing voice (by Lima's real-life daughter Branca Lima) sounds mismatched and emotionally flat. At least we're lucky to be stuck with such gorgeous-looking stars as Santoro and Abreu -- she, especially, looks stunning. But we once AGAIN have to endure omnipresent Selton Mello's maddening ad lib routines at its most irritating (and he's a master at that) in the portrait of the Cinema Novo filmmaker who's a fraud (innuendos galore).
Of course, with Jobim, Mendonça et al, one can't complain about the music -- or can one? Many classic Brazilian songs are there, once AGAIN ("Desafinado", "Carinhoso", "Insensatez", "Copacabana", "Meditação" etc), and musical director Wagner Tiso's re-vamping of those songs are unimaginative and bureaucratic, and on occasion terribly contrived (the jazz club scene with the mix of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" and Jobim's "Só Danço Samba"). The two new songs are lackluster: Wagner Tiso's pastiche of a bossa nova and Jair de Oliveira's unremarkable pop-samba-soul. There's a lot of locations (Rio, Niterói, New York City, Buenos Aires) and with experienced Pedro Farkas as D.P., the film looks pretty but déjà vu -- once AGAIN we're given the standard images of tourist spots (Copacabana, the Sugar Loaf, Manhattan, the Central Park, Nueve de Julio) and we're somehow supposed to look at Rio's present-day skyline and pretend we don't see the huge buildings that were built decades after the 1960s.
But, amid all that mess, for 5 minutes the film gloriously comes to life (hence the 3-star rating): when the sham filmmaker (Selton Mello) watches the rushes from his film- within-the-film "Bala Certeira", we in the audience immediately recognize the unmistakable, dazzling style of veteran Cinema Novo cameraman Dib Lutfi (who actually shot those scenes and, not coincidentally, also shot Lima's best film, "A Lira do Delírio"). It takes us from our torpor, makes us sit up and think we're finally seeing SOMETHING. We immediately recall Lutfi's electrifying, swirling, subversive, trend-setting hand-held camera-work in such Cinema Novo classics as "Terra em Transe", "Grande Cidade", "A Falecida", "O Desafio" (to name but a few). It makes us once again acknowledge Lutfi's huge, seminal contribution to Cinema Novo's aesthetics. Those few minutes by Lutfi are so much more powerful than everything else in "Os Desafinados" -- more powerful than dozens of visually bland contemporary Brazilian films -- that it may be worth watching "Desafinados" just for those few minutes...but then, on a second thought, better watch "Terra em Transe" or "A Falecida" instead, any day.
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