"Heleno": The Forward Playboy of the Forties

in 52nd Cartagena International Film Festival

by Renzo Fegatelli

HelenoIn December 2011, Heleno (Heleno — O Príncipe Maldito), a Brazilian film by José Henrique Fonseca, won the prize for best actor, Rodrigo Santoro, at the Havana Film Festival and was also in competition here. The first prize was awarded to the Argentinian film The Student (El estudiante) by Santiago Mitre. Heleno didn’t win any prize or mention. However, this doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t present to the rest of the world an open window on Brazil. If the French, who boast the invention of the cinema, have had great success at the Oscars with The Artist, a tribute to the silent cinema, for the Brazilians it has to be that football, not only as a national sport, but as myth and passion, should be the subject of a black and white film which should also help to revive interest in the greatest season of a national hero.                    

There are only very few witnesses still living to the successes in the 1940’s of the Botafogo forward player Heleno de Freitas, and soon there shall be no more, even if on the carioca football player they had already made a film (Heleno by Gilberto Macedo, 1967) and a play (“Heleno-Gilda” by Edilberto Coutinho). Our memories of Brazilian football, on the contrary, may only begin with Pelé, Garrincha or Zico. Therefore we think of Heleno as a present, in a film intentionally fragmentary, which the director decided to make as a disparate whole of scenes collected at random.            

The fifth of eight brothers, Heleno (1920–1959) was the most restless. Discovered by chance at twelve years of age while juggling an orange as a ball, using his head and his feet, he started to play aged nineteen in the Brazilian football championship. Botafogo’s forward subsequently became the star of 1940’s Brazilian football. Handsome, cultivated (he studied law without ending his studies), he has become the idol of the people and a forbidden dream of a large number of girls. And he didn’t spare himself. He was fond of fashionable clothes, sport cars, and the women competed for him. With a Copacabana singer he fathered a child, but he didn’t marry the mother. After years of success came the catastrophe. Suffering from cerebral syphilis, he didn’t worry about his venereal diseases. When he was transferred to the Argentinean side Boca Juniors, he spent a short season there, and he also played for Barranquilla where Gabriel Garcìa Marquez made him look like a character out of a novel. By the time he returned to Brazil, no one any longer wanted him to be in their football team. He spent the last four years of his life in the asylum at Barbacena, suffering a dementia which was to be the cause of his death.                  

Heleno is Fonseca’s second film after the award winning The Man of the Year (2003), Heleno brings out the instinctive and violent behaviour of the football player. He didn’t know how to handle his team mates: he gave abuse to his coach and uttered threats with an unloaded gun to his manager. Heleno is played by Rodrigo Santoro (300, I Love You Phillip Morris, Carandiru, Che) opposite the Columbian actress Angie Cepeda (Pantaleòn y las visitadoras, El amor en los tiempos del colera), the film makes use of the Rio de Janeiro fascination with the 40s, of the black and white and of the football myth. More a commercial film than an experimental one, the film keeps aloof from the traditional biopic and doesn’t show the football matches. It tells in chronological order the episodes which compose as a patchwork the vicissitudes of a too impulsive person. At the mercy of his own success, the football player seems not to be aware of the real drama in which he was living. The director also points out Heleno’s idiosyncrasy for doctors which, after all, were his friends.      

Edited by Steven Yates