Brasilia 18%

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Dir. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Brazil, 97 min., 2006.

The latest film from the legendary Brazilian director dos Santos, Brasília 18% tells a tale of political corruption and psychological intrigue. And it could earn a title I’m sure we’ve seen in a spoof somewhere: I See Dead Chicks! I’ll explain.

Dr. Olavo Bilac (Carlos Alberto Riccelli) returns from Los Angeles, soon after the death of his wife, at the behest of his brother-in-law, Dr. Martins Fontes (Othon Bastos), to provide an expert and final consult in a potential murder investigation that has birthed a national media frenzy. Sexy, young economist Eugênia Câmara has disappeared. Her boyfriend, filmmaker Augusto dos Anjos (Michel Melamed), sits in prison awaiting rape and murder charges once Bilac confirms that the body parts recently recovered belong to the missing girl.

Everyone in Brasília seems to have something to say on the subject of the case. Everyone seems to know what really happened. Amidst the fever-pitched pressure from the media and interested politicians — and soon his own brother-in-law — Bilac starts to discover that the case is somewhat more complicated.

The government’s story is that Eugênia was fun. Really fun. Everyone screwed her — including ten men at once the night she allegedly disappeared. Dos Anjos, in a jealous rage, then killed her. Sen. Sílvio Romero has his thumb on Fontes to confirm the cadaver is Eugênia before any evidence of the Senator’s corruption scheme can be proved. And who spearheads the charges? Dos Anjos, acting on information given him by his missing girlfriend, claims that Romero frightened Eugênia into hiding when she tried to expose his embezzlement.

Bilac, middle-aged but handsome and hard-bodied, stoic and morally upright, refuses to simply sign off on the cadaver’s identification until he knows for sure. But one further element throws up a major roadblock — the dead chicks. From the opening scene of the film, Bilac keeps seeing impossible visions of his deceased wife, Laura, and Eugênia, whom he’s ostensibly never met. But he seems to actually interact with them. (Oh, yeah, and they’re almost always naked.) When a dripping wet Eugênia creeps out from behind some shelving in the mortuary, Bilac gives her his lab coat to cover her hot, wet nakedness. When his sister wakes him from a nap at the mortuary desk, Bilac thinks he merely dreamt the interaction — until he discovers the lab coat, folded on a chair across the room. I won’t explain the rest of the interactions. But they and several other clues fan the embers of hope that Eugênia is still alive, that the corrupt politicians won’t get away with yet another scheme in a country where political corruption is so common– well, let’s just say ol’ Tom Delay would fit in nicely.

Dos Santos never gives us the answer. We don’t get full closure. He does provide us a well-shot, well-paced movie with a solid, slick feel. The opening shot from the airplane of the scalding Brasília landscape is breathtaking. Riccelli does nice, stoic work, but Mônica Keiko as the almost-certainly underage hooker, Marília Dedirceu, steals everything — scenes, my heart — infusing each of her few moments on screen with quiet exuberance: She radiates. The rest of the cast does at least passable work. The film leaves some gaps, and that might bother some viewers. But I appreciate its refusing to tie up everything nicely and cleanly. Maybe dos Anjos holds the answer: He reads Galeano and Borges in his jail cell, and when he testifies about the corruption, he speaks firmly and clearly: “I am a Brazilian artist. I am not a thief. I am not a murderer. I am not a liar. I am a Brazilian artist.” Just like dos Santos. And like the real-life Augusto dos Anjos, Brazilian poet, born in 1884 and contemporary of poets Olavo Bilac and Martins Fontes. It turns out most if not all of the characters in this film have famous names, quite often those of writers who perhaps shared some characteristics with the characters in the film. I should have been tipped off towards the start of the film when Bilac is introduced to the Senegalese ambassador — Jean-Paul Sartre. I just thought it was a joke. I won’t get too into this here. Let’s just say that dos Anjos gets the last word but for a disclaimer that begins “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people is incidental.” My head is spinning. Yet again, dos Santos gives us much more than 18%.