I have no objection to twists or surprises in movies. Some of the most exhilarating moments in my movie watching history have accompanied the perfectly timed revelations of withheld secrets. I won't spoil any endings (other than the one in the title of this blog), but there are moments when characters played by Chazz Palminteri and Bruce Willis discover previously unknown information that are consistently chilling with every viewing. There is a moment in The Dark Knight when Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) learns a redemptive detail about her boyfriend Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) that utterly transforms her (and our) opinion about his character.
The key to all of these spine-tingling discoveries is perfectly tuned perspective. For the most part, we experience the events of a good film through the eyes of one (or perhaps a few) character(s). Ensemble films--where we become intimate with the points-of-view of multiple characters--must try exponentially harder to engage us. That's why so many ensemble films fail; it's not sufficient for a screenwriter to simply direct us into some minor character's mind. The screenwriter (and director and actors) must be extremely skilled at creating each of these characters with such sincerity and believability that we are able to link our minds and hearts with each of them. It's difficult enough to achieve this with one main protagonist. Only a cinematic genius like Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, or Orson Welles should ever attempt it with several.
Yet too many sloppy and lazy writers and directors succumb to the shortcuts of multiple perspectives, using the difficult technique weakly and ineffectively. Is your main character too underdeveloped and uninteresting to support a full-length screenplay? Well, then why not flesh out the remaining fifty minutes with half a dozen other underdeveloped characters and call it "a nonlinear thrill ride in the vein of Pulp Fiction"! Having trouble getting the viewers to know a piece of information that the main character can't yet know about? Well, then slip into the point-of-view of a bit actor who hasn't even been on screen yet! Is your story not interesting enough to sustain the audience's attention? Well, then purposely withhold information so that you can keep them befuddled while they anxiously wait for a cheap surprise!
That last cheap tactic is the path that poor filmmakers take when all they want to accomplish is a twist. It's the difference between an effective revelation and an enervating one, and its what Paulo Pons was banking on when he wrote and directed the 2008 Brazilian revenge thriller Vingança (Retribution or Revenge). Opening shots of films are essential, and Vingança opens with a close-up of a nameless young boy who disappears a minute into the movie and is never mentioned again. We move from his point-of-view into the perspective of a rape victim (Bárbara Borges) upon whom he has stumbled while fishing by a river on the Uruguayan border. But this rape victim also mostly disappears from the film after a few minutes, for she is also not the main character. We are then treated to a disorienting, rapid-fire succession of enigmatic scenes featuring three characters who are also not the main character--first a bit player talking on a cell phone who plays the brother-in-law to the protagonist and who is mostly an antagonist, then another bit character who is a friend to a supporting character and who basically has no purpose for even being in the film, and then the supporting actress (Branca Messina) who will be one of the main characters yet is still not our main, point-of-view character. Finally, finally, after five misdirected attempts the only purpose of which is to "intrigue" (read: frustrate) the viewer, the film settles into the point-of-view of the main character, with whom the focus fairly reliably stays for the remainder of the movie.
Yet even though this is the person we are sharing our mind, eyesight, and experiences with, Paulo Pons is coy about letting us know who this bearded, troubled-looking young man is. Is he the rapist? Is he out to rape again? That's what Pons wants us to think, and it's obvious that he wants us to think that, which makes it quite clear to the discerning viewer with half a brain cell that he must certainly not be the rapist. By the time Pons finally deigns to inform us of what is exactly going on, we've already figured it out--Miguel (Erom Cordeiro) is the fiancee of the rape victim who has traveled to Rio de Janiero in order to ingratiate himself with the rapist's sister (Messina) and eventually get to the rapist (Márcio Kieling), whom he intends to castrate and murder. Miguel looks brooding and troubled not because he is a rapist but because he is on a disturbing mission with which he has many qualms. Our point-of-view character and several of the minor characters (the brother-in-law, for one) know all of the details of Miguel's identity, the identity of the rapist, and the plan for revenge. The minor characters who don't know (like the rapist's sister, who quickly becomes something of a girlfriend to the sensitive Miguel) also more importantly do not know that they do not know something. They have no idea that there's a mystery to be solved, so they're not trying to solve it. So if half the characters have the mystery solved and the other half don't even know that there is a mystery, then why are we, the audience, the only people scratching our heads and trying to fit together all the pieces?
Because the mystery has been superficially thrust upon us by Paolo Pons. This is the kind of cinematic chicanery that I hate most, lacking all narrative integrity and filmmaking talent. Vingança barely supports itself while the mystery is still under wraps; by the time the truth is revealed, it has lost all its steam, which is why the sudden, providential ending (which doesn't bother to explain how certain characters got into unlocked apartments and how certain other characters even knew where these unlocked apartments were located) is constructed of such slapshod turns of off-camera events.
If there's anything positive to be said about this film it's the small performance by José de Abreu as the raging father of the raped girl. The rest of the film, with its manipulative screenplay and its sensational cinematography (despair is conveyed through all the typical cliches--sped up camera, hectic score, blurry focus--ugh) is an utter disaster.
d/w: Paulo Pons
(Erom Cordeiro, Branca Messina)