Unless you count the hot-blooded “Black Orpheus” (for which the Academy honored French director Marcel Camus in 1959), Brazil has never won the Oscar for best foreign language film. Factor in the freak occurrence where “City of God” was nominated in four Oscar categories but not foreign language film, and you have to go back nearly 18 years to find a Brazilian film competing in the final five (Walter Salles’ “Central Station”). That long, dry stretch makes it all the more shocking that the country’s Oscar selection committee, blinded by politics, bypassed “Aquarius” — from Brazil’s most exciting new director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, and the best shot they’ve had at the prize in decades — in favor of what amounts to a three-hanky Hallmark movie, “Little Secret.”
In domestic release back in Brazil, “Little Secret” should do just fine. A devastating true story told in ways that keep the twists of its title hidden for maximum impact until late in the telling, documentary director David Schurmann’s second “fiction” feature draws from his own life, or that of his parents (the source material is his mother Heloísa’s memoir, “Pequeno segredo”), who adopted a five-year-old girl with a troubled past and a tragic future. It’s a devastating narrative for reasons that are best left discovered in the film, but it is not a great movie, in much the same way that many Nicholas Sparks adaptations successfully manage to pull at your heartstrings, only to leave you feeling cheated.
And speaking of cheating, “Little Secret,” which takes place on boats, at sea, in New Zealand, and only nominally in Brazil, barely even qualifies as a foreign language film, seeing as how nearly half the dialogue is in English. That’s because the main character for much of the movie is a Kiwi sailor based on the director’s father, David Schurmann, played by an actor, Erroll Shand, whose every pose appears to have been lifted from the cover of some drugstore romance novel or other.
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Suffocated by his over-controlling mother (Fionnula Flanagan, a great actress reduced to playing a one-dimensional harpie here, complete with omnipresent whiskey glass), David leaves home and sails to Brazil, where he meets one of the country’s most stunning women, Jeanne (Maria Flor). Communicating in a broken cross between English and Portuguese, the couple fall in love and break up, one of them nearly dies, and they finally manage to get married and return to New Zealand, where the mother-in-law awaits like a wicked fairy tale queen, always ready to say the wrong thing or otherwise disrespect her son’s new love.
These scenes are spaced out across a movie that jumps around in time, opening at the end with a long helicopter shot over the water and up to some sort of solemn family ceremony on the coast of New Zealand. Like a moment straight out of “The Lord of the Rings,” this widescreen visual is so breathtaking, Schurmann hardly needs to embellish it with a CG butterfly, which flits in and out of frame like “Forrest Gump’s” white feather. And yet, the director never quite trusts his audience to arrive at the appropriate emotional response on their own, constantly over-cuing our reactions with a lovely, yet heavy-handed orchestral score (from Antonio Pinto, who oversaw the music for the recent Rio Olympics opening ceremony), or the aforementioned casting choices, which feel less like normal people than their soap-opera equivalents.
In the film’s final minutes, Schurmann shares home-movie footage of his parents and adopted sister, Kat, and these people look nothing like the actors chosen to embody them: Júlia Lemmertz and Marcello Antony play mom and dad, while Kat is represented by newcomer Mariana Goulart, a stunning, colt-like young lady who could conceivably grow up to be a supermodel. Alas, though beautiful, she’s not much of an actress, at least not yet, which makes the portion of the film that concerns the difficulties she faces adjusting to a new school back in Brazil feel strained. It’s nearly impossible to read Kat’s emotions during these vital scenes, so Schurmann relies on frequent closeups of her puckered lips and Bambi eyes to suggest how much she’s suffering — suffering from ignorance, that is, since she has no idea what, if anything is wrong with her.
Is she even aware that she’s been adopted? Schurmann keeps that detail hidden long enough that we might incorrectly assume it’s the “secret” of the film’s title, and yet, there’s a far bigger surprise lurking late in the film. And boy, is it a doozy. Tempting as it may be to discover the twist in advance, do yourself a favor and try to remain in the dark, because this reveal (known to readers of the book, and described in the first line of the Schurmann family’s Portuguese-language Wikipedia entry) is what gives the film its power.
The film, which would otherwise never be seen in the United States, has been a surprise beneficiary of the country’s recent political struggles. When the filmmakers of “Aquarius” used the international platform of Cannes to protest impeachment proceedings against Brazilian then-president Dilma Rousseff, they took what proved to be the losing side of history (Rousseff was relieved of her elected office in August, ending what opponents saw as a peaceful coup d’état). Alarmed at the way the Oscar selection process had been policitized, the directors of three other entries — “Don’t Call Me Son,” “Para Minha Amada Morta,” and “Neon Bull” — pulled their films from consideration in a show of support for “Aquarius,” which still failed to be chosen. (Ironically, another film in the running, Rio and Tokyo film festival winner “Nise: The Heart of Madness,” might have stood a better chance with the Academy.) Is it fair to punish “Little Secret” for being selected in “Aquarius’” place? No, but there’s so little fairness to be found in this story — not least of all as regards Kat Schurmann’s tragic fate — that the question scarcely applies.