Sporting a notably baroque plot, "Bufo & Spallanzani" weaves elements of post-modern fiction, the standard murder-mystery, time aspects and two complex love affairs into a tapestry of intrigue that dares the viewer to keep up. Pic, alas, finally leaves the impression of a great deal of work expended in the service of insufficient payoff.

Sporting a notably baroque plot, “Bufo & Spallanzani” weaves elements of post-modern fiction, the standard murder-mystery, time aspects and two complex love affairs into a tapestry of intrigue that dares the viewer to keep up. Pic, alas, finally leaves the impression of a great deal of work expended in the service of insufficient payoff: Stripped of its novelistic references, various scientific obscurities and a truly puzzling character transformation, director Flavio R. Tambellini’s Rio-set mystery (based on Rubem Fonseca’s novel) is only moderately affecting and lacks the filmmaking dazzle to be the tour de force it wants to be. There’s still enough here to provide the goods for a commercial Brazilian release that should travel well in all territories.

As Rio detective Guedes (Tony Ramos) investigates the suspicious death of Delfina Delamare (Maite Proenca), wife of Panamerican Insurance head Eugenio Delamare (Gracindo Junior), he’s thrown by the confession of bestselling author Gustavo Flavio (Jose Mayer) — accompanied to the police station by g.f. Minolta (Isabel Gueron) — that he had been having an affair with Delfina, and that he suspects Eugenio killed her.

Meanwhile, in his office with a killer view of the Copacabana, Gustavo is trying to write his new novel, “Bufo & Spallanzani”– the title’s first half referencing the Latin name for the frog species, the latter citing an 18th-century scientist specializing in the amphibians.

In a 10-year flashback, Mayer plays a mediocre insurance investigator named Ivan Canabrava who moonlights as a writer. He stumbles upon what appears to be a case of insurance fraud and into the life of a sexy, aimless gal also named Minolta (also Gueron) given to strutting around his place nude.

Ivan’s irritating, henpecking wife (Zeze Polessa) thankfully leaves him, allowing him more time for Minolta and for snooping, which leads him to a frog specialist, Agenor (Matheus Nachtergaele), and the discovery of a plot involving a poisonous potion involving frog extracts and jungle plants that he’s able to link with the fraud case.

This only begins “Bufo’s” curlicue narrative, which switches constantly back and forth across the decade and leaves the false impression for those who don’t keep up that Ivan is Gustavo’s fictional creation — when, in fact, Gustavo is Ivan, 10 years older, now a skilled author and vastly more suave.

Confusion is nearly unavoidable, as some characters closely resemble each other while others appear different enough to be someone else or simply (which turns out to be the case) to have aged. In the end, the point of it all is nothing more than Gustavo/Ivan’s revenge on the evil Eugenio for his past crimes.

Production values are considerably more impressive in this sleek, widescreen presentation than the cast, which plays this like just another genre assignment. Pic is linked with “Bufo” producer Andrucha Waddington’s far more distinctive and personal film as helmer, “Me You Them,” on which Tambellini served as producer, even though the projects are leagues apart in artistic interest and commercial intent.

Bufo & Spallanzani

Brazil

Production

A Ravina/Petrobras Distribuidora/Eva Mariani/Conspiricao Filmes/Warner Bros. presentation. (International sales: Ravina Films, Brazil.) Produced by Andrucha Waddington, Flavio R. Tambellini. Co-producer, Quanta Centro de Producoes. Directed by Flavio R. Tambellini. Screenplay, Patricia Melo, Rubem Fonseca, Tambellini, based on the novel by Fonseca.

Crew

Camera (CFI color, JKL widescreen), Breno Silveira; editor, Sergio Mekler; music, Dado Villa-Lobos; production designer, Gualter Pupo Filho; costume designer, Rita Murtinho; sound (Dolby Digital), Felix Andrew; supervising sound editors, Anne Pope, Branka Mrkic, Eric Offin, Barbara Parks; assistant director, Olivia Guimares. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 16, 2002. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Ivan Canabrava/Gustavo Flavio - Jose Mayer Guedes - Tony Ramos Minolta - Isabel Gueron Zilda - Zeze Polessa Eugenio Delamare - Gracindo Junior Delfina Delamare - Maite Proenca Agenor - Matheus Nachtergaele Professor Ceresso - Juca de Oliveira Ferreira - Milton Goncalves
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