Brazilian cinema fascinates me because it marries the vibrancy of the New World (including intriguing racial identities and beautiful music) with stark urban realities. I mention a few of Brazilian movies I’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed in a previous blog post.
Ricardo Elias’ The 12 Labors is as watchable as its peers, and shares thematic elements with Black Orfeu. Like the 1959 “cross-over” classic, the protagonist of The 12 Labors, Heracles, is named after a character in Greco-Roman mythology. The connection to mythology here, however, is not as pronounced. As we slowly learn, the mythical 12 tasks of Heracles (which includes slaying beasts, cleaning a filthy celestial stable in a day, and other impossible errands of redemption) serves more of a symbolic role in the story of a black youth in Sao Paulo.
Heracles (a winsome Sydney Santiago) is just out of the notorious Febem reformatory (a jail for minors), and seeks employment as a “Moto Boy” in Sao Paulo under the tutelage of his cousin Jonas (Flavio Baraqui). Moto Boys are errand and delivery boys on motorcycle, typically associated with a courier company. Sao Paulo’s streets run thick with 300,000 such Moto Boys, and as they weave their way through horrendous traffic conditions, it is said that as many as 2 a day die in a road accident.
Heracles’ tasks aren’t monstrous, but are more in line with the various trials and occasional indignities suffered by the Moto Boys in general. I won’t spoil it by breaking down each task, since a comparison to mythology isn’t instructive. The Brazilian hip-hop soundtrack choreographs scenes through intense Sao Paulo traffic beautifully. Heracles is a budding artist, and has shrewd observations about the people he meets as asides in his head. There’s a particularly thrilling scene which is essentially a short movie within a movie, in which one of Heracles’ comics is brought to life in a flashback sequence.
This movie bursts with life, but is dark, with a closing scene involving a motorcycle journey to the edge of the earth, by the ocean, serving as a striking metaphor for mortality’s encounter with the infinite. As the credits rolled, the audience was pensive and introspective.
We got a chance to speak to Ricardo Elias in person after the movie, and he said something that struck me as emblematic of what this movie is about. He said that in order to rise above your circumstances when you are black and poor in Sao Paulo is to do something akin to what a demi-god like Hercules had to do in the myth. To thwart your destiny, you had to achieve the impossible, like a member of the Olympian pantheon.
The opportunity to chat with Elias in person in a five minute aside about the parallels between Brazil and India as he walked out will be one of the highlights of this year’s SFIFF for me. There’s more to be said about finding in Brazilian narratives a vicarious link with Indian realities, but I’ll leave with the sentiment that I’d like emerging Indian cinema to be inspired by what’s coming out of Brazil.