Putting sociological elements on an equal footing with drama, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas look at poor Sao Paulo youth’s limited options through the lives of four brothers in “Linha de Passe.” By focusing on fatherless boys trying to make their way in life without resorting to criminality, the atmospheric film consciously positions itself as an alternative to flashier recent Brazilian fare steeped in drugs and death, and addresses serious issues without insisting on its own self-importance. Engrossing if not gripping effort possesses the quality and seriousness to make limited inroads on the international art circuit.
Occasional directing partners since the 1995 black-and-white thriller “Foreign Land,” Salles and Thomas recruited mostly nonpros for the cast and worked on real slum locations to foster thorough verisimilitude for their sober but not entirely despairing assessment of the state of things. In essence, the filmmakers’ list of society’s scourges would be led by fatherless families, too many babies and drugs, an analysis that provides solid intellectual footing for a story that strongly links the general with the specific.
Anyone growing up in the lower depths of a city of 20 million people has only the longest shot at escaping the cycle of grinding poverty, but the four brothers attach their individual hopes to entirely distinct endeavors. Dario (Vinicius de Oliveira, the youthful star of Salles’ “Central Station”) dreams, like countless others, of making the grade as a soccer player, but at 18 has reached the outside age limit for being drafted onto a team. Dinho (Jose Geraldo Rodrigues) works at a gas station but centers his life at a small evangelical church and tries to walk the straight and narrow. Denis (Joao Baldasserini), the oldest, has a kid he rarely sees and can’t support with what he earns as a motorcycle courier. Just entering his teens, Reginaldo (Kaique de Jesus Santos), who unlike his half-brothers is black, is both the most precocious and unruly of the bunch; he’s also obsessed with finding his father, who he believes to be a bus driver, which leads him to spend considerable time riding busses and hanging around stations.
Their mother Cleuza (Sandra Corveloni) is a tough bird with a soccer obsession who loses her housecleaning job when it becomes apparent she’s pregnant again. There’s little she can do to control her boys once they’re past a certain age, but seems most fond of, and worried about, little Reginaldo, and still carries a torch for his absent dad.
Structured by month, from May through September, the film intricately intercuts among events, both significant and banal, in the five protrags’ lives. Desperate after being passed over at a soccer tryout, Dario haplessly alters an ID card in hopes of buying himself a bit more time, indulges in a nasty night of drugs and subsequently confronts the problem that coaches expect “tips” for a place on a team. Dinho endures a despairing test of faith as well as dwindling fortunes at his church, while Reginaldo pulls a startlingly desperate stunt in an effort to attract attention to himself, hoping his father, wherever he is, might notice.
Of the four, however, Denis is closest to crossing the line into crime and when he does, his reckless shenanigans provide the film with its most extensive melodrama and action. Salles and Thomas show they can ramp up tension when they want to but generally steer clear of such conventions in favor of highly specific situational observation, all of which seems credible and largely unforced. Hardly movie star attractive but eminently watchable, thesps seem like the real deal and are invariably convincing.
Unlike films focused on gangs, cops, gunplay and the evocation of live hard-die young excitement, “Linha de Passe” concerns boys at least hazily aware of the desirability of finding a tunnel from youth to adulthood. The people front and center here seem to possess a seemingly paradoxical combination of looking-out-for-themselves attitude and lack of responsibility, while society itself seems scarcely organized in any meaningful sense. While clear about a few of the world’s many ills, the film avoids fashionable nihilism and refreshingly refrains from finger-pointing and lecturing.
Impressively crafted in every respect, pic boasts a muted color scheme and develops complex but easy to follow editing patterns that effectively balance the story strands. Locations are vivid without being exoticized, and Gustavo Santaolalla’s score and overall sound work are exemplary.
Title, literally translated as “Passing Line,” is a Brazilian soccer term for players passing the ball from one to another without letting it touch the ground, a notion that poetically evokes the structure of the film itself. Producers have yet to come up with a satisfactory English title.