Dir: Lina Chamie Brazil 2007. 88 mins.
A cross-city drive turns into an existential odyssey in Lina Chamie's The Milky Way, which opened Cannes ' Critics Week sidebar. Part urban road movie, part stream-of-consciousness cinematic monologue, Milky Way layers flashbacks, bon mots about life and death, and variant versions of the same scene into what could have made an intriguing 30-minute short.
This being permanently gridlocked Sao Paulo, however, it drags on for almost 90, and an elegantly-managed twist at the end fails to make up for the frustrating feeling that we too have been stuck in a creative traffic jam, its emotional flow blocked by an excess of literary references and a tricksy structure that needs more genuine drama to counterbalance its cleverness. Unapologetically pitched at the arthouse, this slender title is unlikely to set the already crowded Brazilian market on fire; audiences there and abroad are more likely to see it in festivals and niche cinemateque outings.
After a row over the phone with his much younger girlfriend Julia (Alice Braga), in which he says things that he immediately regrets, introverted, solitary writer and literature professor Heitor (an intense Marco Ricca) decides to drive across town to make up with her in person. But this is Sao Paulo, and even once he's remembered where he parked the car, the drive takes forever. On the way, Heitor runs through salient episodes of life with Julia on his mental Avid: their meeting at a fringe-theatre performance of Euripides' Bacchae; the promises he made to her (or she to him' - a later variant flashback makes us unsure which of them was afraid to commit); his jealousy of Thiago, an actor whose interest in Julia seems to go beyond mere friendship.
The first part of the film is laced with nods to poems, plays and literary works, from Dante's Divine Comedy (the first lines of which appear on a roadside video billboard) to Roland Barthes' Fragments Of An Amorous Discourse, which Heitor keeps on the passenger seat of his car (we can't help feeling that a Sao Paulo A-Z would have got him there more quickly). The city's oppressive presence is underlined by subjective handheld camera as an increasingly frantic, fazed Marco is dazzled by lights and becomes prey to visions that may or may not be real (a beggar girl who seems to be able to hear Heitor's voiceover thoughts; Thiago in a car speeding ahead to his own romantic tryst with Julia). The sound texture of the film acts as a running counterpoint to the main action, mixing the Tom And Jerry theme with Schubert, Satie and Mozart, and foregrounding repeated siren and heartbeat noises that will be explained by the final twist.
Meanwhile, day turns to night and Marco is unmasked as an unreliable narrator, as flashbacks mix with flash-forwards to his arrival chez Julia, and both start to offer multiple, contradictory versions of what actually happened. Once you survive the drag of the first half and begin to guess at the surprise ending, the film picks up; but an involving finale is not enough to justify its feature-length running time.
Fernando Alves Pinto