J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil ‘10: Sunstroke

With its sunny vistas and striking modernist architecture, it is hard to imagine much angst-filled brooding in Brasilia. Of course, there is plenty, usually resulting from some form of love denied. Inspired by Russian literature of the Nineteenth Century, Felipe Hirsch and Daniela Thomas’s Sunstroke (trailer here) might be the most demanding selection of this year’s Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil in New York.

Consciously inspired by Soviet Constructivism, Brasilia was intended to be a utopian city in the desert. It still looks cool, but the summers are long and hot. Those who remain languidly loll away the time like Chekhov characters. Even our pseudo-narrator has a Russian name: Andrei. His verbose introduction would seem truly pretentious, if it were not so droll and subversive. Indeed, though Sunstroke is self-consciously art cinema, it frequently plays with our expectations for such films.

As Andrei explains in his preamble (with suitably Russian fatalism), the stories of Sunstroke are about “Love and loss—loss, mostly.” Childish crushes end as they must. Petty jealousies undermine budding relationships, while one-night stands that produce unrequited emotions are terminated abruptly. Yet, despite the feeling of emptiness in the city, the storylines never overlap, except at a bizarre concession stand, where Andrei often pontificates to other confused characters.

Oddly amusing, yet always dignified, distinguished Brazilian actor Paulo José is a pleasure to watch as the erudite Andrei. The rest of the cast is something of a mixed bag. Perhaps the most successful arc involves a non-existent love triangle, in which one man’s innocent affection for a student becomes a pretext for his lover to break off their affair. Leonardo Medeiros depicts Leo (another Russian sounding name) with nebbish likability, while young actress Daniela Piepszyk takes quite an impressive turn as the smitten Zoyka.

Hirsch and Thomas’s unhurried pacing might be faithful to their literary inspiration, but it puts the film somewhat at odds with the rest of the festival line-up. Inspired by Russian sources and written by American screenwriters Will Eno and Sam Lipsyte, Sunstroke is a challenging film, periodically enlivened by moments of eccentric wit. It always looks spectacular though, thanks to cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr’s gorgeously framed shots of Brasilia and the surrounding desert.

Although clearly intended for an elite audience, Sunstroke has its intriguing moments for those who acclimate to its rhythms and ambiance. A strangely affecting film, Sunstroke screens again during the Brazilian festival this Thursday (6/10) at the Tribeca Cinemas.

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