Aging Cinema Nuovo maestro Carlos Diegues’ “The Greatest Love in the World” is an over-the-top offering about an expatriate astrophysicist that plays like an overripe version of Kurosawa’s “Dodeskaden.” Staggering through refuse-clogged canals in search of his birth mother, pic’s uptight dying hero finds salvation in the arms of a poor black woman in the fantasy-hued slums of Rio. A would-be metaphysical, self-indulgent wallow, pic posits a vaguely repellant, sexualized embrace of poverty; it inexplicably snagged a co-prize for best picture in Montreal.
Jose Wilker, who presided over the joyous band of players in Diegues’ “Bye Bye Brazil” (1979), here portrays Antonio, a 55-year-old who suffers mightily (and monotonously) from the first frame to the last. His character does not look much happier as a pale and sensitive momma’s boy in flashbacks than he does as a dying man.
After having spent most of his adult life in the U.S. where he was a distinguished astrophysicist, Antonio returns to his homeland to accept a prestigious tribute from the Brazilian government. Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, he resolves to come to terms with his past.
A visit to his undemonstrative adoptive father (Sergio Britto) yields clues to the identity of his biological mother, and, soon, armed with an old photograph, he scours the lower depths of Rio in search of his roots.
Dressed in a heavy suit and tie that are uncomfortably out of place, Antonio ventures forth to encounter every cliche in the book. The tragic destiny of street kids is incarnated by Mosca (Sergio Malheiros), an impossibly adorable drug-dealing urchin who takes the doddering scientist under his wing.
The age-old wisdom of the ethnically enlightened underclasses comes to life in Zeze (Lea Garcia), an elderly black woman who extends her compassion to Antonio as she did to his birth mother 50 years earlier.
And, symbolizing the promise of youth and unrepressed sensuality is Luciana (Tais Araujo), who gives the sexually deprived geezer a lusty sendoff. Meanwhile, the prefiguration of Antonio’s imminent demise hovers poetically in the form of a lovely teenage ghost (Anna Sophia Folch).
Birth and death converge in a blizzard of operatic montages: The sight of Antonio’s mother giving birth and dying on a clump of grass is intercut with footage of Brazil’s loss of the World Soccer Cup. And the whole shebang is further intercut with the image of Antonio, on his last legs, running toward the place of his birth, as Diegues piles on climax after climax in pretentious emotional overkill.
Tech credits are fine, Lauro Escorel’s lensing as faithful to pic’s morbid aesthetic as it was to the cheerfully garish theatricality of “Bye Bye Brazil.”