Paling beside La Sept Arte’s “2000 as Seen By . . . ” series standouts Don McKellar’s Last Night and Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s Midnight (O Primeiro Dia) works its millennial angst like community chewing gum. In fact, since it shares its climactic image with McKellar’s startled farce, you’d think there was some archetypal significance to the image of desperate lovers/strangers swapping death for love atop a twilit urban rooftop. But where McKellar was ruefully witty, Thomas and Salles are earnest and melodramatic; like Salles’s Central Station, Midnight could’ve used a screenplay less proud of its clichés. Judiciously fragmented, the movie’s too-few threads eventually knot up, but not before they fray to nothingness.
I didn’t think my path would cross fatefully with any suicidal gun-toters on New Year’s Eve, and it didn’t, but apparently everybody else was knee-deep in ironic serendipity. Although it opens with enthusiastic slimeball Chico (Matheus Nachtergaele) tossing a Liv-a-Snap to a doggish junkyard bum and extorting money from another lowlife, Midnight largely consists of the hardly inevitable collision between Maria (Fernanda Torres), a speech therapist whose live-in boyfriend evaporates on December 30 and leaves her life a quaking void, and Joao (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelo), a con who escapes prison during a riot with the purpose of executing the rat who put him there—Chico.
Not much more than an hour long, Midnight takes the calendar-roll at face value—everyone’s always frantically explaining how, since “all of the nines will turn to zeros, and the one will become a two,” everything will change. (“Killers will be saints!” someone questionably maintains.) Salles and Thomas don’t have any idea why it might be so, or have any kind of absurdist intent. Rather, the film (like Central Station) has a marvelously tangible relationship with the Brazilian landscape, from anti-industrial outland to cluttered Rio casbah to the late-evening hills. Salles can shoot his country; he just can’t seem to write it.
La Sept Arte’s project was, at any rate, something of a conceptual nonstarter, shackling the filmmakers to an arbitrary and instantly dated calendrical apocalypse that, because it was virtually universal, carried little metaphoric charge. McKellar saw impulse romance defying The End, and Tsai occasioned an allegorical water rot, but Midnight never looks beyond the stroke of 12, and never seems to understand the moment’s meaninglessness.
Running with and somewhat overshadowing Midnight, Elizabeth Schub’s short, Cuba 15, is an impressionistic, pig-in-shitvision of Cuban adolesence. Millennial in its own buoyant, hot-blooded way, Schub’s movie focuses on one Tzunami Ortega Coyra, an entrancingly confident quinceañera who explains right off the bat she was named for a Pacific tidal wave “that caused much destruction. In spite of that, I dislike my name.” Schub’s movie follows Tzunami’s impish example and, after briskly sketching the girl’s happy place and time, culminates in a veritable dancing tour of Cuban landscapes, with Tzunami providing the moves before a Che billboard.