Veronica’s Verite Veracity: No Carmen Miranda She
Despite its fairy tale title, Brazilian writer/director Marcelo Gomes’ Once Upon a Time, Veronica is a realistic look at contemporary urban South America. What’s engrossing about this film is that it takes viewers behind the scenes into the psyche and even soul of its protagonist, Veronica da Silva Fernandes (Hermila Guedes). Who are these women? By going beyond the celluloid stereotypes of countless Carmen Miranda movies, 1959’s mythic Black Orpheus, etc., and revealing Veronica’s inner life, we have a fully fleshed out picture of a 21st century women living in Recife, on Brazil’s northeastern coast.
Much of the truthfully drawn film is concerned with Veronica’s private life; its nudity and sex acts are fairly graphic by puritanical Yankee standards, where couples often make love beneath blankets. But our heroine is far more than a beach blanket bimbo or just another “hot Latin Lover.” In fact, Veronica is a doctor (indeed, if this reviewer understood correctly, a psychiatrist), with much of this feature detailing her work inside of a city hospital and the related stresses of trying to treat, and perhaps heal, psychologically suffering patients (some of whom abuse Veronica).
In the classic “physician heal thyself” mode, Veronica, too experiences existential angst and ponders the meaning of life, so she is often simpatico with her clientele. In this sense, Once is reminiscent of European sixties cinema by Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, with those estranged characters seeking purpose and connection. As Third World countries undergo development, part of the process seems to incur these psychological crises that once seemed reserved for we denizens of the developed First World, with our materialistic, consumer societies. One could find analogy to adding to global warming — welcome to the monkey house!
Veronica finds release from her daily grind in carefree sex and water. Whether romping in the surf (alone or with friends or as part of an orgy) or in her shower, water is a recurring motif that provides our heroine with a form of hydrotherapy. Perhaps it can be argued that the sea in particular is what connects Veronica most to her Brazilian-ness.
As for her sexuality, Veronica confides that her problem isn’t having sex or finding partners, but rather discovering true love. So there’s a conflict as to whether Gustavo (Joao Miguel) will remain solely a sex partner, her boy toy — or, on a more intimate level, become Veronica’s “official boyfriend.”
Perhaps this is because Veronica still lives with her ailing, aging father, Zé Maria (W. J. Solha) — who loves frevo music and has a book by Lenin on his shelf — with whom she has a very warm, nurturing relationship. Maybe she’s channeling those loving feelings into her father, instead of a romantic partner. (Paging Dr. Freud!)
Guedes’ performance always rings true. Her Veronica is not a classic beauty; rather, her attractiveness is derived from the character’s realistic earthiness. Veronica is physically (and mentally) poised somewhere between youth, which is fading, and the onset of early middle age; she’s apparently around 35 years old or so. Indeed, the film begins with Veronica sitting her medical exams, as she transitions from student to entering the workplace as a professional.
Veronica is busty, but beginning to sag — you know, like a real woman, not a pre-fab Hollywood movie starlet. In a sense, sans (presumably) Botox, breast augmentation surgery and other artifice, we experience a natural instead of artificial woman, which makes her all the more sexier and endearing. Likewise some of Veronica’s gal pals — one of whom is very overweight but not burdened by Melissa McCarthy-type fat girl jokes.
Gomes combines Neo-realist and more arty cinematic styles, with lots of close-ups. We get a real slice of life as it seems to be lived by 21st century real residents of Recife. But a shot that lingers on Veronica’s grief stricken visage goes on far too long and one almost wants to shout “cut!” at the screen at this affectation. The Brazilian auteur’s other films include the noted 2005 Movies, Aspirin and Vultures.
Overall, Once is a candid, absorbing film that sheds light on 21st century Brazil through the life of a vibrant, bright woman full of longing, striving for hope — and, perhaps, an insouciant state of grace that is joie de vivre. Once Upon a Time, Veronica opens in Los Angeles November 28.