Heleno Movie Review

by Keith Widyolar

Heleno opened yesterday to an adoring crowd of film lovers at the Regal Union Square. Viewers at the 7:40pm show were treated to a personal appearance and discussion with director José Henrique Fonseca and lead actor Rodrigo Santoro led by Ralph Appelaum of Filmmakers Dialogue at SVA School of Visual Arts. Quickly it is a universal story, masterfully told, elegantly shot and brilliantly acted by Rodrigo Santoro. The film is in Portuguese with English subtitles and shot in elegant black and white to set a period tone.

Rodrigo Santoro Heleno
Rodrigo Santoro

Few “foreign” films make it into theatrical release in the States. The fact that “Heleno” did is an indicator of the exceptional character of the film. The Heleno trailers show thrilling soccer scenes, the unspoiled beauty of Rio’s Copacabana Beach in the 1940s, and the mythical elegance of radio-era high society in night clubs. But the trailers only hint at the real story, the internal struggle of a genius to deal with his own demons, ego and fame.

Heleno is a mythical figure in Brazil from the time of radio. A man built of pure testosterone, he was a university educated lawyer from a rich family who played beach soccer on Copacabana, scored in almost every game he played, and scored with the most desired women of his day (and then some). Being a high-testosterone kind of guy, Heleno had a famous temper and in the end he died sick and alone wasted away from his own excesses and the ravages of syphilis.

Santoro’s transformation from the vibrant, virile Heleno to a sick broken man is striking. You almost wonder if it is the same guy. Director Fonseca explained that they shot in two phases with a 45-day break for Santoro to change from the very lean physique of a soccer star to the wasted body of a sick man.

Though the most famous player of his time, today Heleno exists only in myth, newspaper clippings and 20 seconds of film shot when he played for the Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, Argentina where it is said that he also had an affair with Evita. The young journalist (later Nobel-prize winning novelist) Gabriel García Márquez famously wrote of him, “As a football player, Heleno de Freitas could blow hot and cold. But he was more than just a centre-forward. He was a permanent opportunity for others to speak ill of him.”

Since there is so little archival material about Heleno, the film is a pure character study based on interviews of people who were young in the 40s. When asked what he knew about Heleno before the film Rodrigo replied, “I didn’t know anything about him. I asked my father who didn’t know, so I asked my grandfather whose eyes lit up and opened wide in his memories of this man.”

The film jumps back and forth between the glory years of the soccer star and his last days spent sick and alone. Director Fonseca explained that he didn’t want to make a linear bio picture, “I didn’t want to tell what was happening. I want people to feel what he was feeling.” The film succeeds in this. The greatest star of the time never won the World Cup. You feel Heleno’s passion, drive, frustration and pain. Santoro said, “I was working with the space between who we are and who we want to be.” Heleno had a son who never knew his dad because Heleno got sick when the boy was very young. At the Brazilian premiere he embraced Santoro saying, “Thank you, I just met my father.”

I have to admit, the movie brought me to tears. What? I cried at a soccer movie, a movie about 1940s glamour, a character film? Yes because I saw a little of myself. I’m not suggesting that I’m a genius like Heleno, but I am a creative person.

Rodrigo Santoro as Heleno
Rodrigo Santoro as Heleno

For us life is a walk on the razor’s edge. The way forward leads to achievement, recognition and success. But on one side lie the depths of mediocrity, and on the other the infinite darkness of insanity. Ironically heaven is there in the dark. In the movie, Heleno even says that he was happiest when he was angry. The darkness is where all creation comes from. Creative people reach into the dark to bring beautiful things into the light, but walking the line is our biggest challenge in life.

When I first met Rodrigo, I asked how he was doing on this promotional tour. I mentioned that being a movie star is hard work. Rodrigo replied that, “being a working actor is hard work.” Rodrigo is obviously gifted, but worked for ten years before making his breakout in 2001′s “Brainstorm” directed by Wilson Souza Neto. He has continued to develop his craft since, moving up into blockbuster territory and is a co-producer of Heleno.

Rodrigo is famously handsome. Everyone reacts to his good looks and elegance, but if you stop there, you will miss the man. Like Heleno, Rodrigo is very intelligent. Unlike Heleno he is also a kind and generous man. When we sat down with Rodrigo, we asked what were the similarities between himself and Heleno. Rodrigo said there weren’t any, except perhaps the strength of his personal commitment. But I think some of the power of this performance comes from that fact that both Rodrigo and Heleno are genius in their chosen craft.

The difference is that Rodrigo has discipline. He manages his brilliance and let’s it out at the appropriate time in front of the camera. The scenes of Rodrigo playing Heleno on a rampage are the most powerful in the film. Heleno didn’t have this control. He refused to train and partied all the time. He gave everybody hell and didn’t take care of himself.

Heleno is a good movie for New Yorkers to see. You have to be obsessive compulsive to succeed in this town. There is so much competition here that it is the only way you have chance, but brilliance has its price. If you are one of these people or are close to someone who is creative, you have this weekend to go see Heleno in its limited release. It is a beautifully written and gorgeously shot story about what happens when brilliance is unchecked. It’s the story of Icarus, the man who flew too close to the sun.


Regal Union Square Stadium 14‎
850 Broadway, New York, NY
(212) 253-6266

Saturday-Sunday December 8-9
11:00am 1:50pm 4:50pm 7:40pm 10:40pm

Buy Tickets at Fandango

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