Once Upon a Time Was I, Verônica

in 28th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by José Antonio Teodoro

Naked bodies of men and women tumble, run and intertwine between sheltering stones, on some Edenic beach, to the obliterating surges of ocean roar, under a blissful expanse of blue sky. These opening moments conjure less a sense of tantalizing sexual abandon than one of children at play: adult, eroticized bodies free of adult inhibition and responsibility. The question of whether to cling to childish waysor to adopt conventions of adulthood suffuses the whole of Once Upon a Time Was I, Verônica (Era umavezeu, Verônica), the latest from Brazilian writer-director Marcelo Gomes, and winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Guadalajara International Film Festival. Suffuses yet does not resolve itself: I’ve seen Verônica twice and have yet to decide whether or not it was designed with any clear moral consideration in mind, or whether, like its heroine, it concerns itself almost exclusively with moments, perhaps mindful of the long-term consequences, yet willfully disregarding them. Liberation and compromise are given equal weight. Choices are made, whether consciously or by force; things are lost. Hard meanings remain elusive. Perhaps it’s as simple as how my friend Javier put it to me: “The film says you can do whatever you want.”

Fresh from medical school, Verônica (Hermila Guedes) is granted residency at a busy city hospital, a happy development, but one that yields unease. Her patients come with complaints of mysterious, perhaps psychosomatic ailments — some hear voices, some can’t sleep, some won’t speak, some are aggressive — while Verônica at times seems distracted, cowed by the task. Occupational stress slips into a greater sense of personal vertigoor, as the film’s title implies, a spell of disassociation, a kind of identity crisis. Verônica begins a process of self-diagnosis, more intuitive than systematic, speaking notes into a handheld recording device. In her social life, which Gomes conveys in scenes that are both introspective and wildly sensual, Verônica is drawn to long nights of dancing in clubs, to drifting in the sea in perfect weightless solitude, and to sexual encounters with a boyfriend to whom she is deeply non-committal — as well as with others. Her body is supple, fiercely alive and self-aware, but her mind feels undefined and seeks to know itself. Mirroring this duality, she’s also torn between two men: on one side there is her boyfriend, who seems serviceable at best, but pledges his love to her; on the other side there is her father (W.J. Solha), big-bearded and gentle, elderly and not in good health, but delighted by his daughter and content to pass his free hours with his record collection.

Once Upon a Time Was I, Verônica is many compelling things, among them a lyrical exploration of physical pleasures, and a portrait of Recife, Gomes’ hometown, one that offers a striking contrast to the more sinister portrayal of the city provided in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s excellent Neighbouring Sounds (2012). But the elementof this film that attracts me most is the way that it contributes to a certain tradition of work that explores relationships between fathers and adult daughters; I think most especially of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) and Clare Denis’ 35 Rhums (2008). In its quietly audacious way, Once Upon a Time Was I, Verônica defies the implicit wisdom of these esteemed predecessors, by allowing its heroine to choose the father over the potential husband. Yes, of course, sooner or later the father will die and Verônica will be left alone, companionless and that much older. Her choice seems a denial of what we would normally deem the natural forward-movement of life and the rites of passage handed from one generation to the next. But it is her choice to make. Verônica adores her father in a way that no lover can hope to match, and thus opts to remain as close to him as possible, for as long as possible, at the expense of all other intimacies. I cannot find it in me to condemn her for this. She’s foolish maybe, insufficiently self-preserving, but she’s also choosing love, the one real love for another that she knows, over convention; she’s choosing casual sex over greater investments; she’s choosing the abiding consolations of bonds formed in childhood over adulthood’s call to conformity and reasonableness.

By the story’s end, which notably mirrors its beginning, I’m not quite certain if Verônica’s project of self-analysis has led to any firm conclusion. Rather, it is a longer process, one that will continue to change in nature as Verônica’s own experiences shift. She is adrift, alive, immature, unsettled. She is also still responsive to the world in a way that becomes increasingly rare as we get older — a way I can’t help but admire somehow.

José Teodoro