Brazil’s decades-long struggle with the human cost of a brutal military dictatorship in the 1960s and ’70s is viewed through an original, slightly cockeyed lens in “Body.” Perhaps too oblique in its references for non-Brazilian auds and too resistant for some tastes to the standard whodunit formulas it vaguely suggests, Rossana Foglia and Rubens Rewald’s pic marks a fine debut for the filmmaking couple, and looks to do good arthouse-leaning biz when it opens locally in May.
Original Portuguese title literally translates as “corpse,” which is exactly what the film immediately thrusts in viewers’ faces. Crucially, though, the dead body coldly laid out in a Sao Paolo morgue and then cut open is seen through the perspective of morgue doc Artur Teller (Leonardo Medeiros). Artur is able to “read” a body for the kind of life it had and even imagine the medical fates of strangers he observes on the street or subway.
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“I just know what the body tells me,” he informs a relative of a shooting victim, and it also informs viewers about Artur himself: He’s a quizzical fellow, with unruly hair and an array puzzled expressions, who trusts in the body’s physical reality. So when a female corpse arrives at the morgue, along with a huge cache of nearly 40-year-old bones — apparent victims of Brazil’s military junta — his trust is shaken and stirred.
Straight out of a standard cop drama (and not especially freshly reimagined), Artur’s coroner boss Lara (Chris Couto) plays the role of station chief to Artur’s cop-on-the-beat, telling him not to fuss with the body and instead help determine to whom the bones belonged.
“Body” then embarks on a surprising course: Rather than delving into past events, it inserts sudden, often elliptical flashbacks (superbly edited by Ide Lacreta) that Artur imagines are from the dead woman’s life. His overly quick and convenient finding of documents in a police file help attach a name to the body: Teresa Prado Noth.
Things appear to veer seriously off course, almost into another movie, when a young woman named Fernanda Prado Noth (Rejane Arruda) turns up to identify the corpse, assuming it’s her mother. Instead, she finds that the corpse strikingly resembles her (the body is played by Arruda herself), and then initiates a bizarre cat-and-mouse game of flirtation and deception with Artur.
Pic strains too much to dramatize the idea that the past is an elusive matter, that the dead can tell tales and that some targets of the former military regime took extreme and elaborate measures to conceal their identities. At the same time, Foglia and Rewald create an intriguing atmosphere that slips from past to present and back again, and their audacious strategy succeeds in placing auds directly inside Artur’s mindset as he tries to navigate the evidence as well as his heart’s desires.
Medeiros maintains a manner of curious skepticism throughout with a perf that helps the film overcome several scripting flaws. Arruda delivers a remarkable three-character showcase here, including a key role in the flashbacks. Couto is effectively dry.
Tech standouts include Marcio Langeani’s lensing and Roberto Eiti’s production design, which forge an oppressive, sickly green setting in a morgue weighted down with the twin stenches of the dead and bureaucratic sloth.