We took shelter on the South Bank over the weekend to mark 10 years of AFRICAN ODYSSEYS at BFI (15 JULY 2017, 14:00). Celebrations included brief speeches, a raffle for some chocolates and a brace of Brazilians.
Today we focus on BESOURO (aka THE ASSAILANT). We posted our thoughts on its emotional bedfellow, BOY 23 – THE FORGOTTEN BOYS OF BRAZIL, yesterday.
(2009) d. João Daniel Tikhomiroff
Offering a very different take on the legacy of Brazilian slavery to BOY 23, capoeira action flick BESOURO is a curious but compelling creature.
On one level it’s a rousing western cum martial arts movie, all spiraling feet and fists in a crowd-pumping plot about an oppressed people’s fight for freedom. On the other hand, much like Ang Lee’s HULK (with occasional touches of Apichatpong Weerasethakul), it’s a film deeply rooted in spirituality as our hero retreats to a natural realm of gods and creatures where he will learn the true purpose of his quest.
The plot focuses on the legend of capoeira cult hero Besouro, which means ‘beetle’ in Portuguese (curiously translated as The Assailant in English language releases, both dumbing down the movie and mishandling its not at all complicated plot).
As befits all such films, we see Besouro’s capoeira master killed at the hands of merciless thugs, his friend’s unrequited love lead to rivalry and revenge, anxious tension build in the rebellious ranks and a peaceful people find the fight to overcome the yoke of slavery. We also get the tired marginalisation of female characters — despite Jéssica Barbosa’s dual roles as fighter and goddess — but we knew that was coming, right?
Shockingly handsome in a hero shot, real-life capoeira player Aílton Carmo has little more to do than fight and pose, yet it is his journey from vainglorious young man to liberating legend that sets this movie apart. Subdued by a daunting god of war, Exu (Sérgio Laurentino), and supercharged by water goddess Oxum (Adriana Alves), Besouro becomes the true spirit of his people as the film finds its distinctive poetry.
We first encounter Exu in a thrilling battle, the flying statue cutting the angles to evade and provoke Besouro’s feat and fists. As our hero learns to see through the eyes of the natural realm, the camera magically soars across the country, touching communities with his courage. Switching between real and supernatural, the film’s refusal to tell a straight story allows myth and mystery to grow. Come the end, it’s thoroughly refreshing to have an action film that is prepared to subvert our sense of such stories.
Elsewhere, the much heralded wire fu from the CROUCHING TIGER team feels curiously — and culturally — out of place. What works for god fails for man, as if the finely balanced dance of capoeira doesn’t need the technique’s contrived weightlessness. There are also too many montages, particularly the slow motion punchline where Besouro’s legacy takes a generational leap forward. Here, Tikhomiroff struggles to balance a knowing acknowledgement of his film’s clichés with the sincerity of its spiritualism.
Yet, the demand for this film — the most requested in 10 years of AFRICAN ODYSSEYS at BFI — and the loud whoops from an appreciative audience lay bare its efficient and effective call to arms.
IN MOVING PICTURES
- As Besouro’s spirit leaves his body and enters a flying beetle and then a frog, we see from the animals’ point of view, soaring high through the forrest and deep underwater.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- AFRICAN ODYSSEYS continues at BFI – the only continuous strand dedicated to the cinemas of Africa and its diaspora in the UK.
- COMING SOON: continue the Brazilian connection with BLACK GODDESS (aka A DEUSA NEGRA) (BFI, 5 AUGUST, 16:20) or head to Nigeria for very rare archival treasures OLA BALOGUN DOCUMENTARY PROGRAMME (BFI, 6 AUGUST, 13:00).
- AFRICAN ODYSSEYS is jointly promoted with Alt-Africa, the “bespoke London arts & culture events magazine”.
- For more ideas about adventurous moving pictures, read our recent GUIDE.
Featured images: BESOURO (2009).