If Felipe Bragança took as much care with his script as he did with his visuals, his debut as solo feature director could have signaled an interesting new voice in Brazil’s rich art-house choir. Instead, “Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!” aims for poetry yet, like its ridiculously clumsy title, manages only an odd mix of magical realism with over-heated Lynchian touches.
On paper, it had all the elements to make the Hubert Bals Fund quiver: rural Brazilians and downtrodden indigenous Paraguayans in a lingering battle with historical roots, overlaid with a cool motorcycle gang. Cinematographer Glauco Firpo (“Castanha”) makes it glow on widescreen, but Bragança is unable to smooth out glaring differences between amateur and professional actors, and the story itself, told in choppy chapters, fails to build to anything resembling genuine emotions. After scattered fest dates, “Alligator Girl” will indeed be swallowed up.
A helpful intro explains that the Apa River dividing Brazil and Paraguay was the scene of horrific battles in the 19th century, when hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans were slaughtered. Those events understandably continue to shape the lives of people on the border, which is Bragança’s jumping-off point as he conjures this ragged story of Brazilian adolescent Joca (Eduardo Macedo), madly in love with his Paraguayan Guarani peer Basano (Adeli Gonzales). She rejects his importuning, acting like a haughty Amazonian princess backed by loyal native followers.
Things at home aren’t so great for Joca either: His mother Joana (Claudia Assunção) has been depressed for 10 years, ever since her husband left the family, so the kid is more or less raised by his older brother Fernando (Cauã Reymond), called “December” in his anti-Paraguayan bikers’ posse whose members are named for the months of the year. All except for the leader, Telecath (Marco Lóris), who presumably has self-loathing issues since his mother was Guarani. The Calendar Gang, as they’re called, keep rumbling with their Paraguayan counterparts, headed by Alberto (Marcio Verón), whose girlfriend is sleeping with Fernando, though that’s not such a big problem since Alberto has set his sights on his cousin Basano, just turning 15.
As the narratives flow (or collide) into one another, Guarani bodies mysteriously float down the river in eerie imitation of the cadavers that choked the Apa nearly a century and a half earlier. It takes some time for viewers to realize these aren’t phantom corpses but real ones, their deaths ultimately connected to Joca’s family, yet the revelation is so poorly set up that it’s rendered meaningless. In fact, nearly all the elements of “Alligator Girl” meant to conjure an emotional response fall flat: Surely Telecath’s motorcycle funeral isn’t supposed to induce chuckles, and lackluster editing employed to lead up to his death in a truck accident fails to build tension.
The film’s heart should be Joca’s unquenchable love for Basano, but nothing ever makes us feel for them, even after a scene of the two kissing in the forest, surrounded by fireflies; though designed with a sense of pictorial thrill, the effect never quite achieves the required magic. Not helping things is the inescapable fact that Gonzales declaims her lines in stilted tones, with no light behind her lovely eyes. She’s hardly alone, and the contrast between popular Brazilian actor Reymond (also here as a co-producer), chomping on his sentences with the training of a professional, and the amateur performers clearly unsure of how to deliver unnatural dialogue, destroys any illusion of cohesion.
Visuals are the film’s strong suit, although the ultra-careful compositions have a shallow beauty about them, slick, stylized, and perfectly lit, yet the emotional tug is absent. Snippets of music, including the overture to native classical composer Antônio Carlos Gomes’ opera “Il Guarany,” are inelegantly inserted.