A Tale of Past Lives

in 5th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Carlos Brandao

Adapted from Chico Buarque de Holanda’s novel, Benjamim is a drama about a man who suddenly finds his life diving into a vortex of strange and absurd situations. The film is director Monique Gardenberg’s second feature : her first work, the political drama Jenipapo, was premiered at Sundance/96 and had a good reception from the audiences there.

Benjamim is structured in two different time moments and follows a veteran and forgotten publicity model, Benjamim Zambraia, who meets the young and attractive woman Ariela and discovers to his mixed feelings that she bears an astonishing resemblance to Castana Beatriz, a great love of his past, who died a long time ago. His obsession with the girl, who is married to a disabled, wheel-chair bound ex-policeman, brings the plot to a dramatic conclusion. Gardenberg brushed aside several opinions that considered Benjamim a novel unadaptable to the screen : “to me the book has a mysterious tone, and it was its language – very close to the cinematographic – which really attracted me. There is a lot of symbolism about what could happen to somebody’s life if a loved person could really be reincarnated, and the romanticization of everything that one day was so intensely lived by the character”.

The script was written by Monique and two other filmmakers, Jorge Furtado and Glênio Póvoas. “We debated for a long time and made ten different versions of the script until we found the right tone. The film tried to be faithful to the book, but, little by little, the characters began to gain a life of their own. We made a strong effort to give dignity to the title character, who in the novel is a lonely and depressed man, with a constant perplexity towards life”, says Gardenberg.

The director makes a point out of stressing that the relative fidelity towards the spirit of the book, however, was kept integral in its most intriguing aspect: the elliptical narrative : “to each return from the past, the present suffers a transformation and perspectives change. The film tries to follow this “temporal back and forth” found in the book”, she explains.

The accomplished Brazilian actor Paulo José, who is having some health problems these days, interprets the Benjamim of the present and young Danton Mello lives the character from the past. Cléo Pires, daughter of actors Glória Pires and Fábio Júnior, has a surprisingly competent debut on the screen. Cléo was a bet that Monique took , since she had to live two different characters, a difficult task for a young actress with no previous experience.

Nevertheless, she gave to her two feminine parts, Ariela and Castana, a high dose of credibility: “I needed an actress that had lots of sensuality, but at the same time keeping the naivity of a teenager coming of age. Cléo is a natural and gave the exact dimension the two parts asked for”, explained Gardenberg.