Writer-director Guel Arraes has rebounded commercially, but, at the same time, has sunk into a swamp of boorish farce with "Lisbela and the Prisoner." Pic co-stars Selton Mello and is about rogues in northeast Brazil. A little fest exposure may precede potent Latin American market vid biz.

After his second period sex comedy, “Caramuru,” barely registered a blip following his mega-hit “A Dog’s Will,” writer-director Guel Arraes has rebounded commercially, but, at the same time, has sunk into a swamp of boorish farce with “Lisbela and the Prisoner.” If it’s possible to make a more talkative movie than “Dog’s,” Arraes has done it here. Another stage-to-screen adaptation, pic again co-stars Selton Mello and is about rogues in northeast Brazil. Resemblances end there, as Arraes’ lifts — from Woody Allen to “Amelie” — play as weak imitations. A little fest exposure may precede potent Latin American market vid biz.

Set to marry fiance Douglas (Bruno Garcia) in a month, Lisbela (Debora Falabella) appears to spend most of her time at the movies with her sweetheart. For a heroine, she’s disastrously grating, one of those irritating audience members who never shuts up.

Arraes’ knack for inserting his thesps into the roles in the pic-within-pic may be sweet, but it hardly compensates for Lisbela’s annoying, smiley-faced nature.

Lisbela suddenly grows disinterested in the handsome if hick-like Douglas and has her heart stolen by traveling showman and con man Leleu (Mello). Leleu’s raffish charms are undeniable (and Mello provides further proof that he’s one of Brazil’s genuine movie stars), but he is not for a moment the sort of fellow who would hook a nice bourgeois girl like Lisbela.

As if to distract auds from this problem, the scenario yanks the viewer in all sorts of directions. One subplot involves Leleu’s other woman, the lusty Inaura (Virginia Cavendish), whose violently jealous husband Frederico (Marco Nanini) is all bark and no shoot. Another yank comes from the local buffoonish constabulary, led by the blustery Lt. Guedes (Andre Mattos), flummoxed by the uncontrollably loud and unfunny Capt. Citonho (Tadeu Mello, with a screeching voice that nearly demolishes the movie).

Something of a Billy Wilder wannabe, Arraes intends to operate between the comic extremes of loud and soft, vaudeville and romantic, but gets neither tone nor style right. Scenes with Leleu in a circus tent suggest a film about illusions and heartbreak — mixed with the comically grotesque — that, only briefly, harken back to the best parts of “A Dog’s Will.”

Falabella works her smile and pixie style, but her Lisbela is hardly a creature to hang a whole movie on. The cast is nearly driven to exhaustion with the sex comedy obstacle course they must run, so it’s notable that Mello and Cavendish leave behind some good impressions.

Pic is full of flashy opticals and nuggets of razzle-dazzle — including Leleu’s lovely, brief Fellini-esque dream that’s a much more alluring movie in itself.

Lisbela and the Prisoner

Brazil

Production

A Fox Films Brazil release of a Paula Lavigne presentation of a Natasha Films/Globo Films/Studio Mega production. (International sales: Grupo Novo de Cinema e TV, Rio de Janeiro.) Produced by Paula Lavigne. Executive producers, Mauro Lima, Tereza Gonzalez, Ivan Teixeira . Directed by Guel Arraes. Screenplay, Arraes, Jorge Furtado, Pedro Cardoso, based on the play by Osman Lins.

Crew

Camera (Megacolor color/B&W, DV-to-35mm), Uli Burtin ; editor, Paulo Henrique Farias; music, Joao Falcao , Andre Moraes; production designer, Claudio Amaral Peixoto ; costume designer, Emilia Duncan; sound (Dolby Digital); supervising sound editors, Miriam Biderma, Jose Louzeiro ; associate producers, Virginia Cavendish, Arraes; assistant director, Gonzalez. Reviewed at Los Angeles Latino Film Festival, July 19, 2004. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Leleu - Selton Mello Lisbela - Debora Falabella Marco Nanini - Frederico Evandro Inaura - Virginia Cavendish Douglas - Bruno Garcia Capt. Citonho - Tadeu Mello Lt. Guedes - Andre Mattos
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