(2015) Drama (Rock Salt) Willem Dafoe, Maria Fernanda Candido, Reynaldo Gianecchini, Bárbara Paz, Selton Mello, Guilherme Weber, Dan Stulbach, Gilda Nomacce, Tuna Dwek, Tania Khalill, Maité Proença, Dalton Vigh, Supla, Ary Fontoura, Rio Adlakha, Barry Baker, Juan Alba, Lilian Blanc, Jason Bermingham, Roney Facchini, Helena Cerello, Ondina Clais, Christine Fernandes. Directed by Hector Babenco
Death comes for us all, but it comes in different forms; a sudden, violent end a gentle slippage into eternal sleep, or a protracted, painful illness. Whether ready or not, we all die.
Diego Fairman (Dafoe) is a famous film director but neither his riches or his fame can rescue him from the inevitable; he has cancer, an aggressive and life-threatening sort. He needs a bone marrow transplant if he is to survive, but the operation itself might kill him. His girlfriend/partner Livia (Candido) responds with supportive words “You know that if it were a choice between you dying and me dying, I’d choose me” to which Diego agrees that he wishes it were her dying. He’s lashing out, of course but even so that had to hurt, but still she agrees to marry him.
Following the ceremony, he is whisked to New York for the painful and debilitating process that will either save his life or end it. While in the hospital, he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Mello) who has come to collect him to take him to the other side. “But I’m not ready to go,” Diego protests. The man shrugs. “That’s what they all say,” he says in a plainly irritated voice. The stranger comes night after night, sitting down to play chess with Diego in a nice little nod to Berman.
While undergoing chemotherapy, Diego meets a young Indian boy (Adlakha) whom he befriends, using his imagination to tell stories to keep the frightened little boy from being too afraid of the terrible suffering he is undergoing. Diego wants to make one more movie and his new friend might just give him the strength to go out and make it.
The movie was actually made in 2015 by Brazilian legend Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco, the first Latin American director to be nominated for a Best Directing Oscar. It is largely based on his own experiences battling the cancer that would eventually kiss him in 2016 (his death would keep the film from American distribution until earlier this year).
This is not just a downbeat film about the indignity of dying – yes, the horrible painful indignities visited upon cancer patients are presented matter-of-factly, as are Diego’s estrangement from his brother who is now charged with keeping Diego alive with a donation of bone marrow – but also a loving tribute to the movies that Babenco loves and kept him going in dark times. At one point, Diego breaks into a song – “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to be exact – pulling out his breathing apparatus, but his fantasy overlaps into the real world as nurses frantically sedate him before he inadvertently kills himself.
Like most Brazilian films, there is a sensuality that is going to surprise American audiences not used to such things. It manifests in a joyous dance routine that closes out the movie set to the standard “Singing in the Rain.” It also manifests in a scene in which Diego, long too sick for sex, rediscovers his physical sexuality once again in one of the film’s more affecting moments.
The film was originally written in Portuguese but was switched to English to accommodate Dafoe (more on him in a moment). The result is that some of the Brazilian actors are a bit stiff and stilted in their dialogue and it is kind of strange to hear all the supposedly American doctors and nurses speaking with Portuguese accents.
But it might have well been worth it to get Dafoe, one of the best actors of his generation. He is downright skeletal as the ill Diego, his head shaved from the chemo and radiation therapies, looking very much like a man who is inching closer to death. He still, even in his debilitated state, have the ability to roar at the cosmos over the injustice of it all and Dafoe makes it feel organic.
The movie is a bit of a mixed bag and sometimes all the parts don’t mesh as well as I would like, but that’s me. The fantasy sequences work really well, but the “real” sequences of the cancer treatment are also compelling in their own way. The movie does end up on a high note, even though it is tempered with the thought that one of the great directors was making his last film. As swan songs go, this one is a pretty satisfying way to say goodbye.
REASONS TO SEE: Rather imaginative and somewhat surreal. Keeps the interest despite a two-hour running time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little self-indulgent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, some drug use, and plenty of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on the experiences of Babenco as he battled cancer and the characters are based on his own family and friends; this would turn out to be his final film as he passed away a year after the movie was released in Brazil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, FlixFling, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seventh Seal
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A 12-year Night