Alienation is the main theme of “Hard Paint,” a brooding tale of isolation in the internet age set in Brazil’s southern city of Porto Alegre. Designed to be as much a mood piece as a dramatic narrative, the film focuses on a socially repressed young man who only comes out of his shell during chatroom performances, when he strips and smears neon paint on his lithe body. Co-directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marco Reolon (“Seashore”) play with moments of eroticism but this isn’t a flesh-and-fantasy frolic; rather, it’s a melancholic look at how the consequences of bullying, the burden of being different, and the artificial construct of internet chats break down social bonds. Winning Berlin’s Teddy Award guarantees a certain amount of play on the pink circuit, though the film’s length will be a justifiable cause for complaint.
When first seen, Pedro (Shico Menegat) is a timid, emotionally shut down guy in his late teens accompanied by his older sister Luiza (Guega Peixoto) at a legal hearing to discuss a possible plea bargain on an assault charge. At this stage the details are murky, but it’s clear that Luiza, on the eve of moving north, is concerned about leaving her brother alone in Porto Alegre. She’s fine with how he earns an income, stripping in front of the computer as alter ego NeonBoy and taking requests from cyber fans, but before going, she urges him to make sure he leaves the apartment every day, even if only for five minutes.
Pedro’s perturbed on learning there’s another webcam model in Porto Alegre using neon paint in his performances, so he arranges a meeting. Leo (Bruno Fernandes) is his opposite: Playful, outgoing and ambitious, he has set up his chat room to bring in extra money while searching for a dance scholarship abroad. Together, they do an online session and rake in viewers, but Pedro is angered that subscribers now aren’t interested in his solo act.
Leo’s disarming sensuality ever so hesitantly brings Pedro out of his shell, but the withdrawn young man’s emotional investment is risky since Leo’s looking to leave the city just like Luiza and so many others. Those who remain are more like the two guys who attack the couple on the streets one night, or the people watching the bashing from their apartments, their faceless silhouettes standing in mute testimony to a society paralyzed by apathy.
Even more than in “Seashore,” Matzembacher and Reolon weave together the sense of a forlorn place with a need for personal communion, only “Hard Paint” cranks up the pessimism. From the opening court case, we learn that Pedro partly blinded a peer who had been tormenting him, and though the guy’s history of abuse apparently is overlooked, Pedro’s family situation comes in for all the scrutiny. Combine this with Pedro’s inability to engage in interpersonal relationships apart from the virtual ones he creates in his chatroom as NeonBoy, and the picture of a fragmented society barely able to foster empathetic connections is clear and damning.
The film is divided into three chapters, each named for a particular character, though it’s an unnecessary device that provides little sense of what sets them apart from the rest. The late appearance of Pedro’s grandmother (Sandra Dani) merely clouds things without offering greater insight, and the final sequence feels both cut short and awfully predictable. Notwithstanding the need for script tightening, the film remains an atmospheric, haunting portrait of disaffection, carried by the charismatic performances of Menegat and Fernandes as well as Glauco Firpo’s darkly impressionistic cinematography, which conveys a pall of paranoia cut by the erotically charged, highly cinematic scenes of Pedro and Leo cavorting with brightly glowing paint.