Review: ‘Olga’

Based on the true story of Olga Benario, a German communist militant who fell in love with the head of Brazil's communist party while escorting him home from Moscow, "Olga" has historical sweep but little grace. Its corny characters and scripting keep auds from becoming involved in the romance until well into the second hour.

Based on the true story of Olga Benario, a German communist militant who fell in love with the head of Brazil’s communist party while escorting him home from Moscow, “Olga” has historical sweep but little grace. Though selected as Brazil’s Oscar nom, its corny characters and scripting keep auds from becoming involved in the romance until well into the second hour, when the heroine begins to unthaw. Emphasis on her tragic end in a German concentration camp probably won’t be enough to take this TV-flavored melodrama far with foreign viewers, while its uncritical view of the USSR feels dated.

Director Jayme Monjardim, whose small screen background is evident, opens on Olga (Camila Morgado) as a shaven-headed wretch about to die in Ravensbruck in 1942. The film is told as a flashback as she writes to her young daughter.

In 1928 Berlin, Olga marches with the proletariat for social justice and a brighter future. When her political activities alarm her liberal father and viperish mother, she breaks off relations with her well-to-do Jewish family.

In Moscow, her words inspire a sea of rapt listeners to burst into a chorus of the Internationale. While a glamorous whirlwind montage shows the beautiful Olga flying fighter planes and heroically firing her rifle, dialogue like “I fight alongside the revolution, not a man!” reinforce her unpleasant fanaticism.

Now a top-ranking Soviet agent, she is assigned to protect Luis Carlos Prestes as he makes his way to Brazil, where he is to lead the communist revolution in 1935. Rather unbelievably for a decorated army general, Prestes (Caco Ciocler) turns out to be a good-looking and tenderhearted young man.

After taking leave of his mother (Fernanda Montenegro) and sister, he starts on the long journey with Olga, where they masquerade as wealthy newlyweds. Pic finally turns in a more interesting direction when they let their mutual attraction climax romantically.

Torn between her feelings for the smitten Prestes (who wants to marry her) and her duty to change the world, Olga decides to return to Moscow. But when his bid to launch the revolution fails miserably, she stays by her man.

The heroic lovers are separated and Olga discovers she’s pregnant. Brazilian president Vargas makes a present of Olga to Hitler, deporting her to Germany and certain death.

Film’s most original and genuinely moving scenes unfold in a Berlin hospital room, where Nazi authorities placate world opinion by allowing her to keep her baby daughter as long as she can breastfeed. Olga’s transformation from ideologue into human being and suffering mama is complete, if somewhat spoiled by the melodramatic final scenes in the camp.

With iron will and cornflower blue eyes, Morgado makes a splashy film bow, embodying Monjardim’s larger than life view of his heroine. As Prestes, Ciocler plays a romantic hero badly lacking a military dimension. Film’s only subtlety comes from the dignified Montenegro.

Tech choices, while professional throughout, never get away from an over-baked TV look, featuring an excess of close-ups, indulgent editing and a musical score ripe with sentiment.

Olga

Brazil

Production

A Nexus Cinema e Video production. (International sales: Grupo Novo/Lumiere Brasil, Rio de Janeiro.) Produced by Rita Buzzar. Directed by Jayme Monjardim. Screenplay, Rita Buzzar, based on a book by Fernando Morais.

Crew

Camera (color), Ricardo della Rosa; editor, Pedro Amorim; music, Marcus Vianna; production designer, Tiza de Oliveira; sound (Dolby digital), Jorge Saldahna. Reviewed at Brazilia Film Festival (Market), Nov. 26, 2004. Running time: 141 MIN.

With

Olga Benario - Camila Morgado Luis Carlos Prestes - Caco Ciocler Dona Leocadio Prestes - Fernanda Montenegro
With: Luis Mello, Eliane Giardini, Jandira Martini, Mariana Lima, Renata Jesion, Werner Schunemann, Guilherme Weber. (Portuguese, German dialogue.)
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