J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Paulo Coelho’s Best Story, Not Including the Alchemist

According to press materials, Paulo Coelho’s New Agey fables have racked up 165 million net copy sales around the world. Clearly people are reading him, but there is no need to buy his books, considering he grants his fans permission to download his work through file-sharing sites. Regardless, he remains a record-holding bestseller, but the Brazilian publishing industry did not always recognize his commercial potential. Coelho’s portrait-of-the-author-as-a-sad-young-man story is incorporated into his supposedly autobiographical first book, The Pilgrimage in Daniel Augusto’s Paulo Coelho’s Best Story (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The sage-like modern day Coelho has just had major surgery, but he is not one to sit around a hospital room idly recovering. Much to his indulgent wife’s surprise, he decides to attend the party celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his biggest hit, The Alchemist. Normally, Coelho does not go in for these crass publicity events, so it is a lead pipe cinch that mysterious signs will lead him on a spiritual detour.

Meanwhile, fifty years ago, Coelho is a suicidal kid growing up during the days of the military regime. He desperately wants to be a writer, but his establishment father keeps asking unsupportive questions, like how are you going to makes a living that way. Ten years and a few shock therapy sessions later, Coelho is hedonistic hippy, building a reputation as counter-cultural polemicist. Eventually, the military government picks him up, alarmed by the openly Satanic Aleister Crowley-inspired lyrics he penned for Raul Seixas, thereby causing suspicions the entire film is a bizarre scheme to build sympathy for the old junta.

Eventually, scruffy Coelho has a spiritual awakening, finds his master in Spain, and joins the crypto-Catholic secret society RAM (Rigor, Amor, Misericordia) by completing a pilgrimage on the road to Santiago de Compostela. Forty some years later, with fresh surgical scars, Coelho realizes he must retrace his steps to prove some kind of point.

Honestly, the whole concept of Best Story does not make much sense. It is constantly acknowledging The Alchemist is the book his fans really love, but it insists on giving them The Pilgrimage instead. The constant flashing forward and backward creates an unsightly rest’s nest of a narrative. Arguably, the cast is fine, but their dialogue is laughable and if you can keep track of Coelho’s girlfriends you are doing better than he is. Frankly, the three Coelhos hardly seem like the same person. The mopey teen victim, debauched pseudo-intellectual, and nauseatingly pompous New Age icon really have absolutely nothing in common, except they are all completely insufferable.

Carolina Kotscho’s platitudinous screenplay frequently calls back Coelho’s oft-repeated quote: “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” That might look nice taped to the fridge, but there are a lot of people in desperate want out there hoping the universe will start conspiring a little harder. Nevertheless, if this is your cup of tea, you’re not likely to heed the warnings of a materialist, so enjoy as best you can. Not at all recommended for grounded viewers, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story opens today (7/31) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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