City of God brought Brazilian cinema into the public consciousness and following on from it there has been a series of gangland thrillers, a strange case of a country typecasting itself, similar to South Korea and its relationship with the revenge thriller. The newest Brazilian film of this ilk to be released [on DVD] on these shores is Boca from director Flavio Frederico. BOCA is adapted from the autobiography of gangland boss Hiroito Joanides de Moraes, the infamous king of Boca do Lixo (an area of downtown São Paulo in the 1950s notorious for its nightclubs, strips joints, prostitution, bars and drugs).
Frederico’s direction cannot be faulted, the style of the era is lavish in its set and costume design is opulent. Also, the cinematography is both well framed and intelligently informed; there is a clever use of mise-en-scene. For example, there is an early scene where we see the redline district before it moves to the titular Boca do Lixo and the shot pans across the effectively barred windows of the brothel, suggesting a lack of freedom. All this is in the days before Hiroito’s rule, after that it comes to resemble a modern business and not a prison.
As a vehicle for a crime lord’s biopic the lead performance from Daniel de Oliveira is decidedly one note. Hiroito Joanides de Moraes isn’t a globally known gangster like Al Capone or the Kray Brothers, therefore the amount of work that is needed to make a performance standout deserving of his infamy. With a range that spans passive to an anger that can only be expressed through a snarl that feels petty not fearful, there is much left to be desired. The rest of the ensemble is solid, even though the screen time each character has is minimal, no actor can impose themselves with such fleeting roles.
This brings the big all-consuming problem with Boca into focus, context. Context is everything, without it there is no way to understand a world or its characters. The result of this is a film that is both too short and too long. To be too long at only 93 minutes is an unfortunate state of affairs. The reason for this state of instability comes from the episodic structure of the film; there is a level of pre-existing knowledge in the script and without that knowledge this film becomes unnecessarily hard work. It would be an understatement to be mystified with BOCA’s international appeal.
With 93 minutes of interchangeable interactions with the police, drug dealing, sex with prostitutes, there is no context about why Hiroito is like this, especially when he comes from a well-adjusted family. There is nothing to inform his character, the only words out of his mouth of his business and money. There is no inclination of character and whenever it does it is comically misjudged. In one scene he meets a woman, offers her a job as a prostitute, she declined, and then he offers his hand in marriage to which she accepts. The way detail is skimmed over is to skim over rudimentary qualities of a screenplay. Furthermore, this supposedly infamous gangster finds out about the police are on his trail through the radio. If the film took him out of his isolated world and showed the reception people had with him and not this half-measure there would be more meaning.
To cover the career of a gangster from beginning to the beginning of the end in 90 minutes is too much in too small a window. The script flows like it regularly skips over two pages at once and nobody noticed. The lack of understanding for where the story is and why the viewer should care is crippling. Either give time to why he is such a cultural figure or don’t do it at all, Boca is a remarkable example of the half-measure in practice. Nevertheless the direction is excellent, its use of colour and seizing the vibrancy and energy of Brazil and its characters is thrilling, the lack of narrative coherence turns what could have been another City of God into another anonymous 21st Century Brazilian thriller.