Foolish Hearts” is a deeply personal film in which the many presumably autobiographical details haven’t been properly shaped or focused to eloquently express matters close to the heart of its director, Hector Babenco. Story of an Argentine teenager’s tragic first love affair and its resonance in later life wears all its sincere intentions on its sleeve, and never generates the hoped-for emotional investment in its reckless, self-absorbed characters. Without a measure of critical support, pic will have tough sledding in the international marketplace.
Babenco has nurtured this project since completing his last pic, the big-budget “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” seven years ago. Although he initially intended it as an English-lingo picture with an international cast (Nastassja Kinski, Willem Dafoe and Martin Donovan are prominently thanked in the end credits), Argentine-born, Brazilian-based helmer at least made the wise decision to shoot in Spanish with local actors and scale down the film to its proper size as a South American production.
Unfortunately, certain other artistic decisions were not nearly as clear-headed, as the script introduces any number of promising topics but can’t get them to cohere in a satisfactory way. Opening scene plunges the viewer into superficially appealing cafe society populated by some bohemian intellectuals obsessed with the idea of photographing the human soul. A 17-year-old student attracted to the group, Juan (Walter Quiroz), meets Ana (Maria Luisa Mendonca), the girlfriend of the project’s financier, and becomes immediately intoxicated by her provocative flirtatiousness and quicksilver mood changes.
Still living with his parents, Juan sees Ana whenever he can, and is not put off by the news that his somewhat older inamorata has spent two years in a clinic for being “crazy.” For lack of any brighter ideas about his future, Juan suffers some desultory training to follow in his grouchy father’s footsteps as a door-to-door salesman. But he momentarily lights up when the old German photographer who is helping with the soul-capturing endeavor gifts him with a viewfinder long ago given him by a film director who went on to Hollywood success (a photo of Fritz Lang is meaningfully inserted here).
Juan thereupon spends a few minutes of screen time looking at life exclusively through the viewfinder, framing everything he sees. In a flash, however, it’s forgotten like a childhood toy, which is indicative of much that’s wrong with the picture, as elements are no sooner introduced than dropped.
Juan doesn’t remotely seem like an artist-in-the-making; when it’s revealed in the film’s final section that he has become a big Hollywood director himself, the choice of careers feels almost arbitrary.
Similarly, Babenco drops in a couple of scenes in which Juan is the victim of some Jew-baiting by other students. But because this has no visible or even hinted-at psychological effect on Juan, incidents come off as dramatically gratuitous. In the same vein, Ana, when she’s heading off the deep end again, begins developing a heavy Anne Frank complex, but why? Issue is never pursued to any satisfaction.
Film’s long first act is devoted to the increasingly intense and precipitously downward spiral of Juan and Ana’s love story. They check into a fancy hotel to consummate their relationship, but, when she believes she has been rejected, Ana goes into a substance-abuse-driven tailspin, cavorting with sleazebags until, in a ridiculous sequence, Juan provokes a man in a nightclub and the fleeing couple are pursued in a sub-TV motorcycle chase. At long last, Juan and Ana end up in a village where they enact a suicide pact by taking lots of sleeping pills, but with mixed results at very least.
At the 90-minute point, action jumps ahead 20 years, with the return of Juan (Miguel Angel Sola) from Los Angeles to visit his dying father. He can think only of Ana even as he pursues another woman, Lilith (Xuxa Lopes), and has sex with her in a dingy building. Lilith is quite a nut case herself, and after Juan discusses his life with her on a wintry beach and has sex with her again, relations between them are concluded in perplexingly abrupt, desultory fashion.
Director and co-writer is obviously dealing here with memories and feelings of special import to him, but they come across as undigested; key events have not been poeticized in a way that would highlight them and make them touching to the audience. A case in point is a re-creation of a film festival showing (possibly Mar del Plata in 1962?) of “Jules and Jim” that supposedly has a big impact on Juan. Not only are the excerpts of Truffaut’s film shown flat rather than properly in widescreen, but the director, seen onstage, is impersonated by a burly actor who bears little resemblance to the diminutive Frenchman. Far worse, however, is the fact that the celebrated American director Vincente Minnelli, also introduced to the audience, is played by a tall man with a beard! This sort of lax attention to detail is enough to drive any film buff mad.
Quiroz’s young Juan is not lively, adventurous or inquisitive enough to engage audience interest or sympathy. By contrast, Mendonca’s Ana is too obviously unbalanced from the outset, giving the actress little room to maneuver before her character is all but literally bouncing off the walls. Sola has an appealing gravity as the adult Juan, while other thesps are solid in one-dimensional parts.
Lenser Lauro Escorel and production designer Carlos Conti help contribute a wide assortment of visual moods, and Zbigniew Preisner’s score similarly introduces some unexpected flavors.