One from the heart, “Jean Charles” recounts the sad saga of Jean Charles de Menezes, a young Brazilian immigrant shot dead in 2005 by London police who mistook him for a terrorist. While its final passages seethe with proper outrage, director Henrique Goldman’s moving docudrama is no liberal harangue but rather a scrappy, affectionate celebration of a man who, as inhabited by Selton Mello, all but leaps off the screen with life. Pic has performed well in Brazil since its June 26 release, and its emotional/topical punch should raise hackles elsewhere, especially Blighty. Stephen Frears’ exec-producer involvement can’t hurt.
Most viewers will come to the film with knowledge of the notorious Menezes case, but for those who stumble in unawares, “Jean Charles” will play out, at least for its first hour, as a slapdash but lively culture-clash comedy set among London’s Brazilian immigrant population. The story unfolds parallel to the drama of the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on London’s public transit system, but aside from occasional news coverage of the bombings creating a sense of general unease, the pic provides few early clues as to where it’s headed.
Attractive teen Vivian (Vanessa Giacomo) has just arrived in London, where she’s welcomed by her cousin Jean Charles (Mello) into a cramped flat that already houses his cousin Patricia (Patricia Armani) and loyal friend Alex (Luis Miranda). Vivian speaks no English, but is determined to work hard and send money to her ailing mother in Brazil. Jean Charles is more carefree; having lived in London for three years, he speaks English well enough, ekes out a decent living as an electrician, and has a natural talent for seizing new opportunities not just for himself, but for those he loves.
The film’s first hour is devoted to Jean Charles’ shenanigans around London, as he secretly steals a restaurant-renovation job from his employer Mauricio (Mauricio Varlotta), then tries in vain to secure visas for two friends trying to return to Brazil. Meanwhile, Vivian struggles to hold down a job, though the casual anti-Arab discrimination she witnesses doesn’t make it easy.
Co-writers Goldman and Marcelo Starobinas make it clear Jean Charles is no saint; his false promises and impulsive decisions have a way of landing him and others in hot water. But the script slyly suggests that, in his wily way, he reps the best and brightest of the immigrant spirit: His endless resourcefulness, his genuine love for his adopted home of London, his embrace of the English language (he scoffs at those who don’t even try to learn it) and his sky’s-the-limit belief in individual potential are qualities to be admired. As played with great warmth, humor and optimism by Mello, whose normal-guy good looks make him an ideal protag, he’s a rewarding character to spend time with.
The shock (or, for some, the grueling inevitability) of what happens next rips a hole in the film’s feel-good vibe and serves only to reinforce the sense of an innocent life suddenly and pointlessly cut short. Final half-hour closely follows Vivian, Patricia and Alex as they grapple with confusion, disbelief, mourning and, finally, bitterness in the face of stiff, evasive apologies from British authorities.
While a more dispassionate, damning film could have been made exposing how the police, misled by an atmosphere of intense paranoia, came to misidentify Menezes as a Muslim terrorist, Goldman has very decisively not made that film. The one he’s made instead is broad, imperfect and deeply affecting.
Guillermo Escalan’s nimble, rough-hewn lensing achieves just the right look for this scruffy picture and its diamond-in-the-rough hero. Pic was made with the cooperation of Menezes’ family; Armani and Varlotta play themselves. Perfs are fine all around, with Miranda a particular standout in the later stages, making Alex devastating in his grief and eloquent in his rage.