We have only just settled into the genial rhythms of Gabriel Martins’ “Mars One,” meeting one by one the loving, yearning family of four at its heart when, like capable, brassy matriarch Tércia (Rejane Faria), we get a shock to the system. Sitting at a lunch counter, Tércia is trying to ignore the ranting of a homeless man behind her. “Brazil is not for amateurs!” he bellows, and she shifts, more irritated than alarmed, until the man pulls out a bomb. The other diners flee, but Tércia remains rooted in horror as it explodes.
That this apparent terrorist attack is actually just a particularly nasty prank being pulled by a TV crew, is immediately revealed, though Tércia remains traumatized even when her family laugh off her experience at dinner that night. And the fake-out can’t help but feel a little similar to Martins’ film in its entirety: Despite a prologue situating it in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 election that saw far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro assume Brazil’s presidency, “Mars One” is far less politically explosive than gently, humanely implosive. Tracking the personal anxieties and challenges of the family members as they pursue differently shaped dreams of escape, it is sincerely meant and deeply affectionate toward its decent, striving foursome, but it’s a little disorienting that it should cue up a gut-punch only to deliver a hug.
Tércia is a housekeeper by day who keeps her own house in order in the evenings. She’s married to Wellington (Carlos Francisco), an avid soccer fan and recovering alcoholic who works as a caretaker in a plush apartment block. Their son Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) is a quiet, bespectacled schoolboy whose soccer talent is his father’s great hope for the future, but who secretly wants to study astrophysics and to become part of humanity’s first Martian colony. His sister Eunice (Camilla Damião) is studying law in college while still sharing a bunk bed with Deivinho. She is getting serious with her new girlfriend, Joana (Ana Hilario), despite her parents not knowing that she’s gay.
The social circumstances sketched here — a little overtly at times, as Martins’ script has a tendency to put into dialogue that which has already been established in action — are such that it’s not just the lack of money that bedevils the family, it’s the proximity to wealth. Tércia cooks and cleans for a minor TV celebrity, who kids around with her like the best of pals, except he gets to go to Paris with his boyfriend on a trip while Tercia, when she needs to get away, decides on her destination by choosing the cheapest bus. Wellington has his imperious, entitled boss and the residents of his upscale building to measure himself against; Eunice envies the unconscious privilege displayed by Joana, with her well-off, liberal-minded parents.
Perhaps it is Daniel Simitan’s mild, amiable score or the pleasant symmetries found in Leonardo Feliciano’s richly warm-toned camerawork, but there is a certain cosiness to “Mars One” that can edge into indie-dramedy formula, especially in the latter stages. We just know, for example, that Wellington’s pride in his four-years-clean AA medal is probably coming before a fall, just as it smacks of screenwriting contrivance that a Neil deGrasse Tyson lecture that Deivinho is longing to attend must happen on the same day that he finally gets offered a potentially life-changing soccer-team tryout. Martins is going for a multiple-perspective, novelistic sprawl, but it can become unintentionally telenovelistic at times, especially when landing on close-ups of Tércia looking aghast that are in a wildly different register to the restrained performance style elsewhere.
And the familiarity of some of the arcs undersells the more insightful and personal observations (the film is partly informed by Martins’ own experiences), such as Tércia’s increasingly paranoid, superstitious belief that she is bringing misfortune on everyone around her, a promising storyline that is described but not explored. Similarly, little Deivinho’s fascination with astronautics is undernourished, especially in comparison to Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s ostensibly similar (though more magic-realist) 2020 title “Gagarine,” which also had space exploration stand for all the lofty dreams that the poor and disenfranchised are told they cannot dream.
Here, the faraway Red Planet becomes a too-wistful, escapist metaphor, when the injustices and privations the family long to flee have entirely terrestrial causes and solutions (hinted at by that election-day prologue). But to really dig into those would require a degree of ferocity and topical anger that this good-hearted, optimistic, oddly old-fashioned film does not deal in, for better or worse. Depending on your frame of mind, it may be touchingly idealistic or so much unrealistic soft-soap, that despite all the setbacks they’ve faced, these four lovable strivers can find common ground and shared hope, in their backyard by the gutters, looking up at Mars.