Original Title: Heleno
Director: José Henrique Fonseca
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
25.01.2020: This review was first published on 23.05.2018 and is being updated for a more complete review, together with the publishing of the YouTube Version.
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José Henrique Fonseca directed the Brazilian movie Heleno, depicting the personal life of the Botafogo player Heleno de Freitas, from his drinking and women, until his early death due to syphilis complications.
World Cup Historic
Also known as Seleção (meaning selection, like Argentina’s Selección), the Brazilian team is the only one qualified to all World Cups, winning five times and becoming the most successful NT in the tournament.
Brazil hosted the 1950 World Cup and lost the title to Uruguay. The Maracanaço (Maracanazo), as I already mentioned in the Whisky review (the Uruguayan entry in this series), was considered a national tragedy in Brazil.
The first three titles in 58, 62, and 70 had the presence of Pelé, regarded by many as the best football player of all time, The GOAT, as some people say. Besides him, many other legendary players helped the first National Team to win three WC trophies.
Brazil won the title two more times since then, in 94 and 2002. Another remarkable Brazilian team was the 82 squad, one of the greatest upsets of the competition to me, together with Hungary in 1954.
Brazil hosted another World Cup in 2014, and after barely reaching the semi-finals. They lost to Germany, the infamous 7-1, the largest margin of a win in a semi-final, and the worst defeat by a host country.
In 2018, Philippe Coutinho helped Brazil reach the quarter-finals, in which they got eliminated by Belgium. Neymar also played well in the competition, but his blatant dives obfuscated his performance.
Heleno de Freitas was born on 12 February 1920 in São João Nepomuceno, state of Minas Gerais. Heleno was of a wealthy origin, graduated as a lawyer, known for being ill-tempered and bohemian.
Most of his career as a footballer was with Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas, playing 235 matches and scoring 209 goals, being the greatest Botafogo idol before Garrincha. He also played for Boca Junior, Vasco, Atlético Junior de Barranquilla, and very shortly Santos and América-RJ.
At the international level, he played for Brazil from 1944 to 1948, scoring 19 goals in 18 matches. Never played a World Cup because there wasn’t one during his time with the Seleção.
His health was being affected by late-stage, untreated Syphilis, an STD that causes neurological problems, personality changes, dementia, and many other issues (source).
He was hospitalized in a mental institution in Barbacena, a city known for its asylums. He remained there until his death in 1959.
Before the Brazilian psychiatric reform, the asylums were a place to dump undesirable people. There the patients were submitted to inhumane treatment and torture. After their death, the corpses were illegally sold for universities.
Barbacena was the center of these atrocities, the city of asylums. This part of Brazil’s psychiatric history is known today as The Brazilian Holocaust.
Since we already talked about his real-life from now on, we’ll talk about the movie. So when I talk about someone, I’ll be referring to the character in the film, not the real person.
The 2011 film directed by José Henrique Fonseca is more about the personal life of Heleno de Freitas than his football career. Much of his abuse of drugs and alcohol, his affairs, mental deterioration, conflicts, and so on.
It’s a sad movie, there is no way around it, based on a real, somber story that had a melancholic end. The film reflects well all this chaotic and gloomy tale of Heleno de Freitas.
Rodrigo Santoro plays Heleno. He’s one of the best Brazilian actors of his time and does an exceptional job as the bohemian footballer, from a handsome, charming man to a deteriorated moribund.
Ilma had her name changed to Silvia (played by Alinne Moraes) in the movie. She was Heleno’s wife, a beautiful woman, always supporting the player, even after they divorced. Alinne Moraes acting is fantastic throughout the whole movie.
Silvia is the typical trope of supporting and caring wife. She begins as a young and determined woman who disappears before her role as a devoted wife. She’s there for Heleno, no matter what. This kind of character doesn’t appeal to me.
Heleno is not a great character as well, he’s an incurable womanizer, a bully, and the only likable thing about him is the actor behind the performance. You feel sorry for him because of how deteriorated he became from syphilis, but not because of who he was before.
He becomes a weak, skinny man, playing ball with the asylum patients, and we can see the contrast with that vigorous figure that played for Botafogo. That comparison was really well made, it worked to show how far down he went.
I believe the director wanted to depict a human being, beyond that romanticized, legendary figure that a sports idol can be perceived as. In my opinion, the director nailed it.
The film is choppy, though. We keep going back and forth between the weak Heleno in Barbacena, and the strong, arrogant one, wherever he is. Not only this, comings and goings, but his life before the asylum is choppy by itself.
As a biopic focusing on his personal life, I missed something linear and attached to known events. The movie references football competitions, but it felt too disconnected from what we were watching, always adrift.
The aspect I like the most about the film is the stylistic choices. Gorgeous black and white cinematography, with beautiful lighting, the wide shots with an antique feel, like really is something from the ’40s.
All of that was enhanced by the astonishing settings, all looking like something from that era. I particularly liked the clubs, maybe because I’m a drunk, but those clubs are the type of place I would love to visit if I were in the 1940s, especially if it had Jazz playing live.
Talking about Jazz. The score is even better than the cinematography. The most notable is the presence of Nature Boy, a song written by Eden Ahbez and most known in the voice of Nat King Cole, but in the movie is performed by Rodrigo Santoro himself.
Also, there’s a lot of singing from Diamantina (played by Angie Cepeda), a Heleno mistress, and even some Billie Holiday, my favorite singer. Billie’s somber style was perfect for this movie.
Heleno has its ups and downs, but the positive was what marked me the most. The themes around football and mental health got my sympathy and attention from the beginning, and it’s great to have a humane portrayal of an idol.
Our legends were human. Heleno was human and flawed, like George Best, Garrincha, Maradona, and many others, yet, that doesn’t belittle who they were on the pitch. This is a sad and beautiful movie of one of these legends, and, for me, it deserves 8 Moons.