In trying to mount soccer’s answer to “Raging Bull,” Brazilian biopic “Heleno” possesses both a cultivated sense of noir and an antihero who fits the bill: Heleno de Freitas, the pre-Pele idol of Rio de Janeiro sports fans and, like Jake LaMotta, a man as famous for his violent temper as his for prowess on the field. But all the respectful Scorsese references — moody, mist-shrouded cinematography, homemovie sequences, operatic accents — are ultimately distractions in a story that loses momentum in painful, protracted fashion. Chances for even limited U.S. exposure seem remote, despite Rodrigo Santoro’s bravura perf in the title role.
Santoro makes a sleekly beautiful Heleno, whom helmer Jose Henrique Fonseca chooses to introduce in his most ravaged state as a prematurely old man, ruined by untreated syphilis and a years-long addiction to ether (which he is seen breathing through a handkerchief during his many moments of stress). That the film’s opening shot should be Heleno staring vacantly into the camera seems a questionable choice; knowing from the outset that this is where Heleno is headed dilutes the impact of his eventual ruination as he transitions from national hero and lady-killer to cadaverous asylum inmate. So do the intermittent flash-forwards from Heleno’s heyday in the ’40s, when he is the unquestioned star of Brazilian soccer and, presumably, the man who would lead his country to a World Cup.
The early scenes, however, with their grand, operatic score, are gripping: Heleno is a brat who disparages his teammates as incompetents (“I play alone”) and leads a rococo lovelife in the cafes of Rio, juggling women like soccer balls. Two of those women will come to rue the day they met him: Diamantina (Angie Cepeda), a luscious nightclub singer whose entrance inevitably recalls that of Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”; and Sylvia, who marries Heleno and bears him a child, but for whom he will never entirely forsake Diamantina.
The tragedy of “Heleno” is one of time, as WWII pre-empts the two World Cups in which Heleno would have played, and by 1950 his personal demons have begun to destroy his career. “Heleno” thus spends inordinate time with its subject in the institution to which he is eventually committed, the supposed hero of the story becoming an object of pity long before it’s called for, dramatically speaking.
The film’s visuals are often spectacular, and the match sequences recall not only the ring scenes in “Raging Bull” but also the immediacy of 2006 docu “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.” But Fonseca has an on-again, off-again relationship with his camera; while some of d.p. Walter Carvalho’s shots are glorious, others seem pedestrian and as ill considered as the structure of the movie.
Tech credits are generally good, notably the sound work.