When does an actual life story end and a performance of the same story begin? This is the question driving Eduardo Coutinho’s engrossing “Playing,” a more involving, brain-tickling variation of the interview-on-film technique the Brazilian docu master employed in such pics as “The End and the Beginning” and “Master Building.” Unlike those works’ straightforward Q&As, pic intercuts real women with actors playing them, blurring fiction and truth. Rave reviews and modest B.O. in local November release preceded current fest rollout abroad. Vid sales may widen Coutinho’s viewer base.
Advertising in a Rio paper for women over 18 to be interviewed on camera, Coutinho spoke to 83 women and narrowed the field down to 23. Final cut (cleverly edited by Jordana Berg) includes five thesps — Marilia Pera (“Pixote”), Fernanda Torres (“The House of Sand”), Mary Sheyla (“City of God”), Andrea Beltrao and Lana Guelero — portraying eight women whose real-life dramas sometimes play like movies.
While Gisele Alves Moura relates a sad account of losing her baby, a sudden cut to Beltrao comes as a jolt, since viewers have not been prepared to expect two Giseles. At first, Coutinho’s trick doesn’t appear to be working, since spotting Beltrao’s perf is easy to do. As a game, “Playing” seems too easy.
But things grow more complex and intertwined as more and more women appear. Especially for viewers who don’t recognize thesps like Torres (daughter of Fernanda Montenegro), Pera, Beltrao or Sheyla, differentiating the subjects from the actresses is difficult, though there are revealing moments when the latter drop their guises to comment on the project’s difficulty (Torres) or on acting tricks (Beltrao).
Sarita Houli Brumer’s teary account of the emotional impact of watching “Finding Nemo” sounds absurd on paper, but turns out to be quite affecting, as is a melancholy lullaby she sings at pic’s end. In a mysterious passage, 22-year-old Aleta Gomes Vieira (whose ambition, ironically, is to be an actor) describes how she stopped speaking to her late father for more than five years after thinking her angry words had given him a heart attack. Pic’s interviews are drenched in concerns about God (and God’s absence), death, psychiatry and the communicative power of dreams.
By the end, any interest in the film’s conceptual game gives way to the emotional scope of the life stories, revealing sometimes surprising and inscrutable corners of human behavior.
Lensing by Jacques Cheuiche, set on the stage of Rio’s Glauce Rocha Theater, is aces. No music is needed, and thankfully, none is used.