Chicago Latino Film Festival Review: 180°

Before the film starts, you are already primed for something dramatic, drastic even, to happen. Such is the power of a name, and in this case, the name of the first feature film for director Eduardo Vaisman, 180°. While nothing is certain, the threat of complete 180° reversal hovers like a bad cloud on a sunny day.

A gentle breeze, birdsong, dogs lying in repose and panting—these are the opening sounds presiding over a barely audible, sustained chord. Within seconds, the gorgeous score composed by Fernando Moura fills out into something reminiscent of Dave Grusin or even a subdued Bill Conti (think “Thomas Crown Affair” and not “Rocky”)—levity from a simple piano line sexed up with muted trumpet grows robust with percussive hand drumming sounding more like approaching hooves on the ground than something you should tap your foot to. In effect, you want to flee. The phrase finishes with a swell to forte by the ominous hangings on of rumbling low strings.

Opening credits materialize like reanimating broken glass, yet another clever employment of tension for glass needs first to be broken, we think to ourselves. Looking further, there’s also a nod here to non-linear storytelling, that time will stitch back and forth in order to convey the story. Broken glass will once again be whole.

Screen shots are partial at first with several scenes obscured by blurred foregrounds or backgrounds. Eventually, you realize a woman and a man are on their way to someplace peaceful and remote to visit a man sipping coffee and reading. As they turn into the driveway, the camera is careful to linger just long enough to capture what seems to be evidence of the storyteller having a little fun with the concept; the address of the house is 180.

Many associate a sense of humor with intelligence. This briefly exposed 180 suggests a bit of a wink at the idea of an impending about-face. It’s OK.  Let your guard down. It’s just an address, silly rabbit! goes the storyteller. Could it be that easy?

Minutes later, the sinking feeling returns. It’s not just an address because something’s still amiss. Minutes later we find out that one of our idyllic characters – Bernardo (Felipe Abib) – is in trouble for a deception. He has lied to Anna (Malu Galli) – the woman who’s rummaging through the 180 house as if it’s her own, something that strikes us as strange. Bernardo has also plagiarized something. Maybe.

Minutes later, we are relieved for in the discrete flirtation with 180-as-address, we settle back into the idea that there will be a dramatic change for there are now too many clues to suggest as such. We settle back into the idea that the devil we know beats the one we do not. The world unfolding before our eyes will be turned on its head.

What now becomes unsettling is that this will happen by a director who’s not only capable of being elegant, he’s mischievous. I’m reminded of a scene in David Fincher’s Se7en, when Morgan Freeman qualifies the seriousness of his enemy, John Doe: “This guy’s methodical, exacting and worst of all, patient.” Eduardo Vaisman has a sense of humor about this story as well as the architect behind it all, screenplay writer Claudia Mattos. Perhaps that’s only because in the mischief, we are also lead astray. The joke is on us.

Scene by scene, 180° darts across space and time. Anna turns out to be a former lover of our coffee drinker and page turner, Russell (Eduardo de Moscouis). And if things can’t get any more incestuous, they all used to work together! We learn all of this early on, but the details and degrees of proximal closeness become the difference between lying face up or floating face down for our characters.

Underneath all the emerging complexity, a strand of simplicity begins to unfurl. Bernardo found a notebook. The notebook is full of different versions of lists. From it he crafted a best seller. He lied to everyone about the notebook. His book is wildly popular. One couple broke up and another formed. Thus is life. And yet, Vaisman captures something much more menacing that has yet to appear. Of this we are allowed only tremors of intuition.

Along the way, moments of beauty flit across the screen. Director of Photography Thiago Lima Silva, for instance, captures refractured sunlight in the form of hexagonal dots, a nice effect I was first made aware of after listening to the commentary tract for Sideways even though this effect is much more common in older movies.

The film’s editing, while sometimes a bit choppy, most often leaves you feeling as if you’re either taking apart a Russian Doll or putting one together. Everything seemingly fits and completes the previous scene.

In the end, Vaisman’s intelligent style has the economics of a poem; nothing goes to waste. Perhaps this truth resonates most after the power is turned off, and the children are off to bed and you’re left idle for a moment to let it all sink in just how 180° really feels…at least as told by Eduardo Vaisman.

Showing at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, Sat, April 2, 6:15pm.