Admirers of the vintage films of John Frankenheimer (above all “The Manchurian Candidate” of 1962 and “Seven Days in May” of ’64) who are concerned with his occasional flirtations with self-indulgence and mediocrity since that time will rejoice at the presence of the master hand in HBO’s “The Burning Season.” Finely textured, beautifully and inexorably paced, the new vidpic joins the earlier masterworks in its exploration of the remarkable heroism of unremarkable men.
Filmed in Mexico and Miami by HBO Pictures. Executive producer, David Puttnam; producers, Thomas M. Hammel, John Frankenheimer; co-producer, Diane Smith; director, Frankenheimer; writers, William Mastrosimone, Michael Tolkin, Ron Hutchinson; story, Mastrosimone; based in part on a book by Andrew Revkin; Partly based on Andrew Revkin’s book of the same name, fleshed out with some harmless if predictable Hollywood-style fiction, “Burning” details the tragedy-tinged resistance, during the 1980s, of peasants in the western Amazon rain forest against the destruction of their land by speculators and cattlemen.
Spurred to a sense of regional consciousness by soft-spoken but charismatic Chico Mendes (Raul Julia, in a riveting performance, perhaps his best work to date), the peasants form a union and mass to prevent construction of a road that will accord bulldozers and chainsaws easy access to their forest.
Against their earnest efforts, however, stands corruption-ridden Brazilian capitalist and political power. Peasant leaders, among them the dynamic Wilson Pinheiro (Edward James Olmos), fall before the vigilantes’ bullets. Mendes’ efforts to maintain a non-violent stance are challenged within his group as the bloodbath flows on.
An eventual, partial victory — a concession by the Brazilian government in 1988 to set aside certain areas as protected forest — is darkened as Mendes himself falls to an assassin’s bullets.
If his efforts to save Brazil’s rain forest fell tragically short, Mendes at least brought Brazilians to a realization of the extent of the forest’s destruction and its devastating ecological consequences. The burning and land-clearing continues, but at least the world now takes note. The ranchers convicted of Mendes’ murder escaped from a loosely guarded jail last year and are still at large.
The story remains a political hot potato in Brazil; that, combined with continued infighting among the heirs to Mendes’ movement, bounced the film rights to his story from one Brazilian producer to Warner Bros. to Warner subsidiary HBO.
Filming venues were, similarly, shifted from Mendes’ own Acre Province to Ecuador to southern Mexico. Critics at a recent screening in Rio de Janeiro fussed at the absence of Brazilian actors, aside from Sonia Braga in a small role as an environmentalist loyal to Mendes’ cause.
Frankenheimer has created a cinematic tone poem with the ring of truth; he captures the soggy atmosphere of Amazonian swampland, the dedication of the jungle peasants to their primitive rubber-producing methods, the generations-old sorrows in the eyes of children and old people alike.
Gary Chang’s eerie electronic music is splendidly used, both in its presence and absence, to underline the mounting tragic sense. In a large cast that includes a number of Mexican bit players, the work of Kamala Dawson as Mendes’ adoring wife, and Tomas Milian as a cattleman and instigator of Mendes’ murder, stand out.