O Primeiro Dia (1998)


(director/writer: Walter Salles, Jr./Daniela Thomas; screenwriter: Joao Emanuel Carneiro; cinematographer: Walter Carvalho; editor: Felipe Lacerda; cast: Fernanda Torres (Maria), Luis Carlos Vasconcelos (João), Carlos Vereza (Pedro), Matheus Nachtergaele (Chico), Nelson Sargento (Vovô), Tonico Pereira (Carcereiro), Aulio Ribeiro (José ), Antonio Gomes (Antonio), Nelson Dantas (Farmacêutico), Luciana Bezerra (Rosa); Runtime: 66; Winstar Cinema; 1998-Fr/Braz)
“Midnight is set in colorful Rio de Janeiro just before the millennium.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Midnight is set in colorful Rio de Janeiro just before the millennium. It will bring together two people from different social classes, who never expected to meet. One is the taciturn João (Vasconcelos) who is serving a thirty year jail sentence; the other is the hot-blooded middle-class Maria (Fernanda Torres). She uses sign language to tutor the deaf in her capacity as a speech therapist and is suicidal because her live-in lover, the intellectual Pedro (Vereza), has just run away from her luxurious hi-rise oceanfront building apartment and she can’t reach him to explain the farewell note he left her. She breaks her phone in frustration and runs out to the beach in search of a phone to call her boyfriend, again.

João is allowed to escape from prison after a riot and allowed to overtake a prison guard. The condition of his release, is that João must kill for the gang a squealer named Chico. He happens to be a friend of João’s, which makes this a tough assignment. But he can’t afford to turn it down.

The marked man Chico is an edgy, low-level streetperson, who has just collected some hush money and mentions he’s lucky he’s allowing him to pay him off as the others he already ratted out to the authorities will be going to prison soon. The best shots in the film are as we follow Chico to his destination atop of the hill, a shantytown where the poor and the homeless live along the touristy pristine Copacabana Beach. He reaches his old flame Rosa’s (Bezerra) shabby apartment and tries to visit his son, who flees when he comes into view. Chico surprises Rosa, who has become a reborn Christian, by this sudden visit after abandoning her long ago. She treats him coldly, until he gives her a huge sum of money. That’s the hush money he just received, as he plans to hide in the marshes from the criminals who will soon be after him. When Rosa goes to bring him his son, João enters. Chico soon catches on why João was allowed to escape, and accepts his death as inevitable. He makes it easy for his friend to kill him by saying he rather die by the hands of a friend, as he nervously chatters and evokes some unorthodox prayers that are mingled with foul language.

Warning: spoiler to follow in next paragraph.

João runs away after the execution through the narrow alleyways and around the squalid homes, whose streets are confetti-lined from the New Year celebration. He flees from those guards who let him escape and now want to execute him and ends up on the rooftop of the luxurious building, where there is a young lady named Maria. She sips some champagne, looks out at the stirring nighttime beach view with the fireworks going off in a dazzling display, and is about to commit suicide by jumping off the roof when João tackles the nearly naked woman. The two spend the night together and believe the millennium will change things for the better, as she starts the new day by going in the water to baptize herself. João, while waiting for her on the beach, is assassinated by a contract killer.

This offbeat drama is both a thriller and psychological study of a woman who is emotionally coming apart and of how corrupt and poverty-stricken Brazillian society is. It was co-directed by Walter Salles (handling the camera) and Daniela Thomas (handling the actors). Salles is the noted director of Central Station. The film was made for TV as part of a series that delves into the importance of the new millennium.

The thin story works so well because of the outstanding performances, the musically rhythmic mood of the visuals which engagingly captured the sexy mood of Rio, and the skittishly fast pace of the film. The Christian symbolism as a parallel to the story about sin, betrayal, and redemption, doesn’t get in the way of the plot. Midnight offers a quirky look at how the unfortunate ones spent their New Year’s Eve, as all they are left with is hope.