ONCE UPON A TIME VERÔNICA (Era uma vez eu, Verônica) C
Brazil France (91 mi) 2012 d: Marcelo Gomes
The problems inherent with this film are reflective of the current lackluster state of malaise in the Brazilian film industry overall which seemingly lags behind the quality of other major Latin American cinema cultures at the moment, where Mexico (Carlos Reygadas, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Francisco Vargas, Fernando Eimbcke, and Amat Escalante) and Argentina (Lisandro Alonso, Lucretia Martel, Fabián Bielinsky, Adrián Caetano, Carlos Sorín, Albertina Carri, Martín Rejtman, and Pablo Trapero) in particular lead the way, but even the smaller film industries of Chile, and perhaps even Cuba, Uruguay, and Peru are producing more innovative films than Brazil, where the variance in quality is rather sizeable, subject to horrendously bad movies featuring “Telenova” actors, others copying the latest aesthetic of indie style films, while billionaire producer Walter Salles wields considerable power and influence after the critical success of CITY OF GOD (2002) over a decade ago, but the films he has written, directed or produced in the past ten years have often just been bad films, where he tends to choose topical issues but the focus is on artificiality and surface qualities, often relying upon nude scenes, rarely getting under the surface into complex character development. CINEMA, ASPIRINS AND VULTURES (2005), an earlier film by Marcelo Gomes premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, but this film, despite a brave effort by lead actress Hermila Guedes as the title character Verônica, a psychologist working at a public hospital, is ridiculously simplistic and an insult to the mental health profession in its lackadaisical presentation. Even the sitcom television comedy The Bob Newhart Show (1972 – 78) offered greater respect and in depth insight for patients showing signs of depression and various other psychological ailments than this film, even though a good part of it is realistically shot during treatment sessions.
Opening and closing on a swirling montage of nude bathers at the beach, Verônica is seen as one of the party revelers, where the continual movement of bodies and camera are woven into an orgiastic frenzy of sexual freedom, becoming a dreamy image of personal liberation that may only be a fantasy, especially as the camera then moves indoors to a couple having sex, where the bodies exist in an impressionistic mosaic of nudity, but other than cliché’d verbal responses, it’s hard to find any real passion in the room. Afterwards, as if sizing herself up in the mirror, Verônica speaks into a handheld tape recorder and offers detached, diary-like thoughts about her impassive state of mind, identifying herself in the third person, “Patient: Verônica. Had some great sex last night. Or at least she thinks she did.” This recurring motif describes the adolescent self-absorption of her thoughts, continually calling attention to herself, but also the lack of any real insight into her own character. In a Grey’s Anatomy (2005 – present) moment, Verônica is seen celebrating with other members of her graduating class from medical school in Recife, where what’s immediately apparent is the difference between book knowledge and patient knowledge, as she’s thrust into the sprawling overcrowded population of patients waiting to be seen in a public hospital, where it’s hard to believe she’s actually “helping” anyone. Nonetheless she walks past this ever expanding line of patients to get to her office each day, where a variety of ailments present themselves to her, but realistically she always feels like a fish out of water, as there’s little actual interaction with patients when all she does is sit there writing prescriptions all day. Away from work, she spends the majority of her time with her elderly father (W.J. Solha), a retired banker with a love for listening to old Brazilian records, but whose declining health worries her, seen tenderly taking care of him even though his continual advice for his daughter is to head for the beach or go out with friends and live her own life instead of being stuck with him.
The one constant throughout is Verônica resorting to sex as the only outlet for all her internal struggles, spending most of the time with her boyfriend Gustavo (João Miguel), but she continues to express self-doubts, offering vacuous comments like “I, patient Verônica, uncertain about life, like everybody else.” She even seems to believe she has a heart of stone, as she freely has sex with others as well and has difficulty making emotional commitments. You get the feeling that every aspect of her life is self-analyzed, that perhaps the only reason she became a psychiatrist was to analyze herself, as she remains indifferent to everyone else except her father, the one man she can depend on. The dreary and downbeat tone at work and in her life feels monotonous and suffocating, growing even worse when she discovers her father is dying, but this is contrasted by street scenes of the two of them walking slowly through Recife recalling past memories while a blossoming vitality of life exists all around them. When they’re forced to move to a new location, due to needed building repairs, it’s a rather overt metaphor for having to rebuild their own lives. Real life is overly grim, where there’s simply nothing to lure the audience into this perpetual aloofness except the sensuousness of the music heard throughout, where in Verônica’s early onset midlife crisis she has thoughts of becoming a professional singer. While this seems little more than a dream, it does give the director an excuse to film whatever passes through her head, resorting to multiple sex scenes as well as a nightclub singer singing one of those songs you can’t seem to get out of your head, that Verônica actually sings to one of her disgruntled patients, “It’s all standardized in our hearts/ Our way of loving doesn’t seem to be ours at all/ Forever moving love to a new address.” This shifting focus of attention and inability to concentrate on anything except the sensuousness of the beach, sex, music, and dreams does reflect the Brazilian state of mind, as if stuck in a reverie, but in this film she’s imprisoned by it.