The oft-told cinematic tales of Brazil’s famous 1930s outlaws, the cangaceiros, have frequently used historical film stock made at the time. “Perfumed Ball” tells the true story of Benjamin Abrahao, the photographer and cameraman who braved the outback, made friends with bandits and shot that footage. Pic has a deliberately naive look that keeps it fresh, plus amusing dialogue and cast. It should be one of the hotter Brazilian fest films this year , while it seeks out limited crossover markets.
Driving the story is thesp Duda Mamberti as Abrahao, a round-faced Lebanese immigrant in a white suit who manages to do what the whole Brazilian army could not: track the bandit king Lampiao to his camp, then smooth-talk the desperado into becoming the subject of his docu. Armed with the manners of a gentleman and the sense of humor of a standup comic, plus a healthy interest in fame and fortune, Abrahao blithely skips from contact to contact until he reaches Lampiao (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos), who calls himself “governor of the sertao,” the inhospitable outback of northeastern Brazil.
Helmers Paulo Caldas and Lirio Ferreira run past a couple of bloodthirsty murders to establish who it is Abrahao is dealing with, but also show surprising scenes of Lampiao leading the cangaceiros in prayer under a tree, and the drunken outlaw band laughing as they “re-enact” one of their feared attacks for the camera.
After his stay in the outlaws’ camp, Abrahao goes back to Rio to develop and distribute the film. Soon he is appearing in the papers as “the Arab who filmed Lampiao.” His film is a huge success, until a dispute with his powerful backer ends in it being banned as unpatriotic. He dies in a horrible scene of murder-cum-cannibalism. But pic’s final message is that Abrahao was a true hero who always believed that “the outcast will succeed.”
Though small in scale, pic vaunts an imaginative camera style. Lenser Paulo Jacinto dos Reis uses a quasi-expressionist palette and camera angles, often framing the shot from directly above or below the action. Music tracks are equally unexpected excerpts from hard-driving local rock groups and period songs. The fake “historical” footage in grainy B&W archive stock is so convincing it could pass for the real thing.