Modesty comes in many forms, but it’s most appreciated when matched by a generosity of spirit. “Body Electric,” Marcelo Caetano’s debut as feature director, is a character study of a 23-year-old gay man who hasn’t figured out what he wants out of life, realized with sensitivity as well as a complete lack of pretension. Affection for the protagonist remains constant as he flows between groups, accumulating lovers who become friends, and searches for a way through the kind of healthy uncertainty that too often, in less understanding hands, is presented as a negative trait. Although the focus occasionally wanders, “Body Electric” is a satisfying, warmhearted film whose understated charms leave a pleasant glow. It’s a pity viewership will largely be limited to LGBT outlets, since mainstream festivals would also get a charge from its low-key current.
Elias (Kelner Macêdo) has been dreaming a lot lately of the sea, which is apt since he’s a bit at sea in his waking life as well. He works as an assistant to the chief designer (Dani Nefussi) in a garment factory, and while he’s liked by all, and enjoys aspects of the job, he’s not frequently inspired. He has an active sex life, and though he recently ended a relationship with older, well-off Arthur (Ronaldo Serruya), the two occasionally still sleep together.
There’s a gentle hunger in Elias’ eyes (and a reassuring warmth in his broad smile): he views those around him with an appreciative gaze, and he’s forward with his desires without being pushy. As Christmas approaches and work intensifies, he socializes more with the factory workers, choosing to ignore the words of otherwise equitable boss Walter (Ernani Sanchez), who advises him to maintain a division between management and the laborers. Among the latter is queeny Wellington (Lucas Andrade), a willowy youth who brings Elias to meet his nontraditional family, headed by fabulous drag queen Marcia (Marcia Pantera, whipping her long pony tail in ways that leave Willow Smith in the dust).
The director obviously loves Wellington and family, so much so that for a short time the film sort of loses Elias, which is a shame. But he comes back into focus, not asking any more out of life than to revel in the pleasures of sympathetic companions. After all, what else is there? Caetano was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” and indeed Whitman’s sensuality is in evidence, but even more apparent is his celebration of camaraderie, so beautifully expressed in the lines: “The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them / I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough”.
One of the nicest things about Elias is his refusal to limit or categorize those he loves (and while he doesn’t have sex with women, he doesn’t marginalize them either). Equilibrium is found in the company of others, and it’s anathema that he would avoid one group or another. Macêdo, in his first feature, quietly captivates the camera with his easy physicality (like Elias, he too comes from the northern coastal state of Paraíba), and if the opening scene feels a bit like an acting exercise, that’s less his fault than the soliloquy itself.
Andrea Capella’s camera generally favors intimacy, though that doesn’t necessarily translate into exclusively tight shots. There’s a marvelous evening scene of Elias walking down a street with his co-workers on their way to a bar; the camera keeps one part of the group in the frame, then moves to allow others in, then changes again, offering an inclusive roundelay of compatible permutations. It’s a beautiful visual summation of another Whitman line, “To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough.”