CLFF Review: Underage

Brazil | 2013 | 77 min.
Director: Caru Alves de Souza
Genre: Drama
Portuguese with English subtitles

A famous writer once admitted he’d be perfectly happy writing stories wherein the main characters do something as normal as walk down the street, trip and tumble to the sidewalk. Maybe he was talking about realism, the adherents of which rarely inject the extraordinary into their stories, preferring to capture everyday life as it actually is. The stories are simple and the action isn’t played up nor the speech overwrought to draw larger themes under the reader’s nose. These stories try to capture “a little slice of life” — maybe not the reader’s, but somebody’s.

Director Caru Alves De Souza’s Underage (De Menor) tells the story of a young attorney (Rita Batata) who focuses her energy on defending young teenage boys. Helena lives with her younger brother, the blonde and blue-eyed Caio (Giovanni Gallo), and the audience never learns about their parents, who are presumably dead. While Caio seems to lounge around the house they’ve inherited, his sister journeys into the favelas of Santos, Brazil to reunite one boy (Diego Pablito) with his mother so that he isn’t sent to the detention center by a stern judge (Caco Ciocler).

Things take a serious turn when Caio is arrested and charged with committing a violent crime. Of course, Helena ends up defending her wayward brother in front of the judge, and she’s visibly torn between protecting Caio and making sure she doesn’t enable whatever he may have developed. The end comes abruptly, with no real resolution. Judge Carlos gives his ruling, and the viewer is left wondering what’s going on in Helena’s head.

One problem with these real-life stories is that they’re not very entertaining and rarely delve deeper into the important issues they delicately brush against. Because Helena and her brother Caio are white, and nearly all of the minors Helena defends aren’t, that the filmmakers behind Underage didn’t sufficiently address issues surrounding race and Brazil’s criminal justice system is a major letdown. And not only are the brother and sister white, they’re also relatively well-off, and the audience is never given an explanation as to how or why Caio becomes the only white, blonde boy in a gang of poor blacks.

Despite shortcomings in the plot, the film itself is beautifully shot, and Batata’s acting is muted yet captivating. There are plenty of excellent frames and closeups that give this movie a sense of rumination, all carried forward by a low but compelling score. While I was disappointed with the film, it’s not too much of shock that it won the Best Film Award at the 15th Rio Film Festival.

Still, if anything, go see Underage if only to catch the short film playing with it, Diego, a story about a mild-mannered little boy, a little girl and a kidnapping . It’s only 17 minutes long, but I’ll remember that Napoleonic piece of filmmaking  long after I’ve forgotten the 77 minutes of overemotional anticlimax which accompany it.

[Photo: Chicago Latino Film Festival]

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