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Narcissus off Duty (Narciso em Ferias)

Documentary about the political imprisonment of Caetano Veloso during the Brazilian military dictatorship has priceless moments for fans yet little appeal for those not familiar with the iconic singer - live from Venice


Unless you meet him in person, this is probably the closer you will ever get to Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso. You will be staring him right in the eye for about 90 minutes as he reminisces about the two months that he spent in prison in 1968/1969, just 14 days after the recently installed Brazilian dictatorship passed a decree entitled Constitutional Act 5. The new legislation criminalised subversive culture and imposed strict censorship on the largest nation of Latin America.

He remember in vivid detail the morning of December 27th, when the police knocked on his door at 05:30 in the morning and arrested him along with his associate Gilberto Gil, also a prominent singer and composer. The two men were taken from their residence Sao Paulo to the army barracks in Rio de Janeiro, where Caetano was held without charge for 54 days. It was only towards the end of the stint that Caetani found out that his alleged offence was singing the National Anthem to the melody of his famous song Tropicália. He laughs at the accusation, explaining that this would have been impossible because the Brazilian Anthem is decasyllabic, while the structure of his song contained eight syllables.

The 28-year-old artist is caught off-guard more than once. He cries compulsively as he recalls a middle-aged Black sergeant who was punished for allowing Caetano to enjoy an intimate visit with his wife Dedé. He feels even worse because he cannot remember the poor man’s name. He is visibly moved when handed a copy of the magazine Manchete with the first pictures of the Earth taken from space, which he saw the first time from his prison sell. His hands shake with emotion as he flips the page of the old mag. The episode inspired him to compose one of his most famous songs, entitled Terra. He also delivers an acoustic version of the Terra, Irene (a song about his young sister’s laughter, which he composed in prison with a guitar) and also The Beatles’s Hey, Jude for the camera.

These precious little moments are more than enough to justify a viewing for any Caetano Veloso fan, or anyone interested in the history of Brazil. However, there is nothing beyond that. Virtually all artistic merit of the movie lies with the interviewee. From a filmic perspective, Narcissus off Duty is very unimaginative. This documentary consists almost entirely of one single talking heads interview, without intertitles, roll B or even a music score. It’s just Caetano sitting on a chair, with one of the directors behind the camera occasionally interjecting. Bar the last two minutes, when we see a few photographs of the Earth on said magazine and some images of Caetano’s prison files. Not a good starting point if you wish to become more familiar with Caetano and Brazilian history. Swathes of bored viewers walked out in the first 15 minutes of the film.

Narcissus off Duty is showing at the 77th Venice International Film Festival, which is taking place right now. The film was introduced by a recording of the directors and Caetano Veloso, who could not attend the event due to the Covid-19 restrictions imposed on Brazilian travellers. One of the directors referred to the film as a “cautionary tale”, presumably in reference to Bolsonaro (who openly advocates the return of dictatorship).

By Victor Fraga - 07-09-2020

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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