Especially for a movie whose title is in the first person, “Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica” doesn’t make much of an effort to get into the head of its protagonist, a young woman fresh out of medical school who’s striving to avoid emotional commitments while sharing an apartment with the father she platonically adores. This gracefully crafted sketch will attract some attention via the heroine’s freewheeling, nonjudgmentally presented sex life. But in the end, Veronica is neither a fully rounded character nor a compelling enigma, limiting Marcelo Gomes’ latest feature to modest artistic and commercial impact.
Framed by teasingly erotic views of healthy young bodies swimming in the ocean and grappling on the beach, the pic finds Veronica (Hermila Guedes) ready to commence true adulthood on some but not all fronts. Her first job is a challenging one, as resident psychiatric intern at a public hospital evaluating a nonstop parade of variably afflicted, grateful and unruly patients. By contrast, she prefers to keep her private life breezy — partying with girlfriends, enjoying casual pickups and keeping smitten steady beau Gustavo (Joao Miguel) at a distance that’s comfortable for her but frustrating for him.
In fact, there seems to be room for only one man in her life, retired widower dad Ze Maria (W.J. Solha). Their platonic, domestically settled “marriage” is enough for Veronica, try as he might to nudge her toward Gustavo or any other serious romantic partnership. When Ze Maria suffers a health crisis, she must face the possibility that her future as Daddy’s best girl may not be infinite.
Using a tape recorder as her own diary-cum-shrink, Veronica notes at one late point that she’s “sick of suffering” and “trying to dream more about life.” But whatever internal drama and changes she’s been through remain opaque to the viewer. While she may grumble occasionally about feeling “empty,” the character and her issues never seem particularly complicated or deep. In part that may be due to the brisk self-assurance Guedes brings to the part; her Veronica seems just fine living on the surface, experiencing conflict only through patients (the hospital sequences are perhaps the strongest here), and pleasure via interludes of sensual abandon that appear as purely athletic and as inconsequential as a good cardio workout. There’s never a sense that much is at stake for her.
Shot in Gomes’ northeast coastal hometown of Recife (also the setting for the recent “Neighboring Sounds”), “Veronica” is accomplished in aesthetics if not thematic weight, with a handsome look and some attractive soundtrack choices.